Arizona Supreme Court declines to revive death penalty bid against immigrant

The Arizona Supreme Court declined to revive an effort to seek the death penalty against a Mexican immigrant charged in the 2015 killing of a convenience store clerk during a robbery in metro Phoenix.

Prosecutors had asked the courts to revive their intent to seek the death penalty against Apolinar Altamirano in the killing of Grant Ronnebeck ever since a lower-court judge concluded authorities couldn't pursue his execution because he's intellectually disabled. 

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

Apolinar Altamirano

The latest effort from prosecutors came when prosecutors asked the Arizona Supreme Court to either conclude Altamirano isn't intellectually disabled or to send the case back to the lower court to make another determination on his disability.

Altamirano has pleaded not guilty to murder, robbery, and other charges in Ronnebeck’s death. Altamirano has already been sentenced to six years in prison for earlier guilty pleas in the case and misconduct involving weapons.

Grant Ronnebeck (file)

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

Maricopa County Judge Michael Kemp first dismissed the effort to seek the death penalty in 2019 after concluding that Altamirano was intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of intellectually disabled people.

Last summer, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed Kemp’s decision, ruling the lower-court judge had correctly considered the strengths and weaknesses of Altamirano’s life skills, but failed to assess his ability to meet society’s expectations of him and sent the issue back to Kemp to consider.

Nearly a month ago, Kemp dismissed the state’s death penalty bid again, finding that 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.

Prosecutors had asked the state Supreme Court to again reverse the dismissal of the death penalty effort in Altamirano’s case. "If any deficit exists, Altamirano has clearly adapted his behavior to be able to function with the personal independence and social responsibility expected of him," prosecutor Amanda Parker wrote.

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