State v. Escalante-Orozco

Decision Date12 January 2017
Docket NumberNo. CR–13–0088–AP,CR–13–0088–AP
Parties State of Arizona, Appellee/Cross–Appellant, v. Joel Randu Escalante–Orozco, Appellant/Cross–Appellee.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General, Dominic Draye, Solicitor General, Lacey Stover Gard, Chief Counsel, Capital Litigation Section, and Jeffrey L. Sparks (argued), Assistant Attorney General, Phoenix, Attorneys for State of Arizona

Gregory J. Kuykendall (argued) and Theresa Loken, Kuykendall & Associates, Tucson, Attorneys for Joel Randu Escalante–Orozco

David J. Euchner, Tucson, Attorney for Amicus Curiae Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice


JUSTICE TIMMER, opinion of the Court:

¶ 1 Joel Randu Escalante–Orozco was sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty of first degree murder, sexual assault, and first degree burglary. We have jurisdiction over his automatic appeal and the State's cross-appeal under article 6, section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and A.R.S. § 13–4031.1 We affirm Escalante–Orozco's convictions and non-death sentences. To comply with the United States Supreme Court's decision in Lynch v. Arizona , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1818, 195 L.Ed.2d 99 (2016), we vacate the death sentence and remand for a new penalty phase.


¶ 2 In March 2001, Escalante–Orozco was employed as a live-in maintenance worker at a Phoenix apartment complex. On March 9, he installed flooring in the apartment that victim Maria R. shared with her three-year-old son.

¶ 3 Maria's body was found the next morning face down in her bathtub with her nightshirt bunched around her neck. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and stabbed until she bled to death. Maria's young son was wandering unharmed in the apartment.

¶ 4 Escalante–Orozco sold his car and immediately left for Mexico without informing apartment management. Six years later, federal agents detained Escalante–Orozco in Idaho and notified Phoenix Police.

¶ 5 After waiving his Miranda3 rights, Escalante–Orozco told Phoenix Police officers that he drank two beers on the night of the murder and then "everything went blank" until he found himself lying on Maria in her hallway with his hand on her "private part." He denied putting Maria's body in the bathtub but said he had washed blood off his face and hands. Frightened, he returned to his apartment, showered, gathered important documents, threw his blood-covered clothes into an apartment complex dumpster, and took a bus to Mexico the next day. He denied assaulting or killing Maria and suggested he had been drugged and set up by relatives who were angry with him.

¶ 6 The State indicted Escalante–Orozco on one count of first degree murder, two counts of sexual assault, and one count of first degree burglary and sought the death penalty. After a prescreening evaluation revealed that Escalante–Orozco had an intelligence quotient ("IQ") less than seventy-five, the trial court conducted a twenty-one-day Atkins4 hearing to determine whether he suffers from an intellectual disability, making him ineligible for the death penalty. See A.R.S. § 13–753. The court ultimately found that Escalante–Orozco did not meet his burden of proving intellectual disability.

¶ 7 At trial, the court dismissed one of the sexual assault charges, and the jury found Escalante–Orozco guilty on all remaining counts. The jury found that Escalante–Orozco had murdered Maria in an especially cruel manner, see A.R.S. § 13–751(F)(6), and, after considering mitigation evidence, determined that he should be sentenced to death. The court imposed consecutive sentences of fifteen and twenty years' imprisonment for the sexual assault and burglary counts, respectively.

I. Appeal and cross-appeal
A. Pretrial Issues
1. Constitutionality of Arizona's framework for determining intellectual disability

¶ 8 A person with an intellectual disability cannot be sentenced to death. A.R.S. § 13–753 ; Atkins , 536 U.S. at 321, 122 S.Ct. 2242. The Supreme Court has not directed a precise methodology for determining intellectual disability. See Bobby v. Bies , 556 U.S. 825, 830, 129 S.Ct. 2145, 173 L.Ed.2d 1173 (2009) ("Our opinion [in Atkins ] did not provide definitive procedural or substantive guides for determining when a person who claims mental retardation ‘will be so impaired as to fall [within Atkins' compass].’ "). Escalante–Orozco argues that aspects of § 13–753, which provides Arizona's framework for determining whether a capital defendant has an intellectual disability, are unconstitutional. We review matters of statutory interpretation and constitutional law de novo. State v. Roque , 213 Ariz. 193, 217 ¶ 89, 141 P.3d 368, 392 (2006). We presume a statute is constitutional and will construe it to preserve its constitutionality, if possible. State v. Thompson , 204 Ariz. 471, 474 ¶ 10, 65 P.3d 420, 423 (2003).

¶ 9 Before considering Escalante–Orozco's arguments, it is useful to broadly review the framework for determining an intellectual disability. Arizona defines "intellectual disability" as meaning "a condition based on a mental deficit that involves significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with significant impairment in adaptive behavior, where the onset of the foregoing conditions occurred before the defendant reached the age of eighteen." A.R.S. § 13–753(K)(3). When the state files a notice of intent to seek the death penalty, the court, absent a defendant's objection, must appoint a prescreening psychological expert to determine the defendant's IQ. Id. § 13–753(B). If the IQ is higher than seventy-five, the state can continue to seek the death penalty, and no further action is necessary. Id. § 13–753(C).

¶ 10 If the defendant's IQ is seventy-five or less, a more rigorous inquiry is triggered. The court must appoint one or more experts to examine the defendant "using current community, nationally and culturally accepted physical, developmental, psychological and intelligence testing procedures." Id. § 13–753(D)(E). The defendant is then afforded a hearing, where he bears the burden of proving an intellectual disability by clear and convincing evidence. Id. § 13–753(G). If the court finds that the defendant has an intellectual disability, it must dismiss the notice of intent to seek the death penalty. Id. § 13–753(H). If the defendant fails to prove an intellectual disability, the notice remains in effect. Id. The defendant can still introduce evidence of an intellectual disability or diminished mental capacity at the penalty phase of the sentencing proceeding. Id.

(a) IQ score cutoff

¶ 11 Section 13–753(F) provides that if all the defendant's IQ test scores are above seventy, the court cannot dismiss the notice of intent to seek the death penalty on intellectual disability grounds. Escalante–Orozco argues that this provision violates the Eighth Amendment and article II, section 15 of the Arizona Constitution.

¶ 12 Escalante–Orozco's four IQ tests resulted in scores ranging from fifty-eight to seventy-nine, considering adjustments for error. Because some scores were below seventy, § 13–753(F) did not apply, and Escalante–Orozco lacks standing to challenge the statute's constitutionality. Cf. State v. Reeves , 233 Ariz. 182, 185 ¶ 10, 310 P.3d 970, 973 (2013) (declining to reach defendant's constitutional challenge to a capital sentencing statute permitting two retrials after a guilty verdict when the defendant was subject to only one retrial); State v. Powers , 117 Ariz. 220, 225, 571 P.2d 1016, 1021 (1977) (holding that generally, only a person injured by a statute can challenge its constitutionality).

¶ 13 We nevertheless address one of Escalante–Orozco's arguments to provide guidance in other cases. In Hall v. Florida , ––– U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 1986, 2001, 188 L.Ed.2d 1007 (2014), the Supreme Court held that Florida's definition of intellectual disability as requiring an IQ test score of seventy or less, without considering any margin of error, violated the Eighth Amendment. Section 13–753(K)(5) requires courts to consider the margin of error when determining a defendant's IQ. But in State v. Roque , this Court stated, without citing any authority, that "the statute accounts for margin of error by requiring multiple tests," and that "[i]f the defendant achieves a full-scale score of 70 or below on any one of the tests, then the court proceeds to a hearing." 213 Ariz. 193, 228 ¶ 150, 141 P.3d 368, 403 (2006) (citation omitted). Escalante–Orozco argues that Roque 's view that margin of error is accounted for by conducting multiple tests rather than considering the margin of error for each test makes subsection (F) unconstitutional under Hall because it results in a bright-line cutoff.

¶ 14 Roque incorrectly described § 13–753(K)(5). First, the provision's plain language provides that courts must consider the margin of error for each IQ test, regardless of the number of tests. See A.R.S. § 13–753(K)(5) (requiring the court to "take into account the margin of error for the test administered"). This is consistent with established medical practices. See Hall , 134 S.Ct. at 1995 ("The professionals who design, administer, and interpret IQ tests have agreed, for years now, that IQ test scores should be read not as a single fixed number but as a range. Each IQ test has a ‘standard error of measurement....’ " (citation omitted)). Second, if § 13–753(K)(5) is interpreted as Roque suggested, § 13–753(F) would violate the Eighth Amendment by setting a full-scale score of seventy as a cutoff without considering the margin of error for each individual test. Our interpretation avoids this unconstitutional result.

¶ 15 The trial court here considered the margin of error for each IQ score. Therefore, Roque 's mistaken interpretation of § 13–753(K) did not...

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