Ruling barring death penalty against immigrant reversed

PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Supreme Court has reversed a lower-court ruling that barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against a Mexican immigrant charged with murder in a 2015 killing in metro Phoenix because he was intellectually disabled.

The state’s highest court ruled Monday that a judge in the lower court had correctly considered the strengths and weaknesses of Apolinar Altamirano’s life skills, but failed to assess his ability to meet society’s expectations of him. The case will be back to the judge to make another determination on Altamirano’s disability.

Altamirano is accused of fatally shooting Grant Ronnebeck, a 21-year-old clerk at a Mesa convenience store, after Ronnebeck insisted that he pay for a pack of cigarettes. Authorities say Altamirano stepped over Ronnebeck to get several packs of cigarettes before leaving the store.

Altamirano is a citizen of Mexico who has lived in the U.S. without authorization for about 20 years. He has been deported and returned to the U.S. in the past.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited Altamirano’s case as an example of crimes committed by immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally against American citizens.

The state Supreme Court said the lower court judge didn’t assess how Altamirano’s intellectual deficits affected his ability to meet the standard of personal independence and social responsibility for a person of his age and cultural background.

Greg Kuykendall, one of Altamirano’s attorneys, said he’s confident the lower court will find that the additional step imposed by the Supreme Court has already been proven.

Altamirano has already been sentenced to six years in prison for earlier guilty pleas in the case and misconduct involving weapons.

He has pleaded not guilty to murder, robbery and other charges in Ronnebeck’s death.

A judge had also previously prohibited prosecutors from introducing evidence at Altamirano’s trial that he was in the United States illegally. The judge had said the prejudice from Altamirano’s immigration status outweighs any relevance it may have.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of intellectually disabled people.

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