Death Penalty Ruling in Case Against Immigrant Appealed

A state prison in Florence, Arizona. (AP Photo/File)

Prosecutors have asked an Arizona appeals court to let them pursue the death penalty against a Mexican immigrant charged with murder in the 2015 shooting death of a convenience store clerk.

A lower-court judge ruled two weeks ago that prosecutors could no longer seek the death penalty against Apolinar Altamirano because he is intellectually disabled. They said Altamirano had completed only the fifth grade and needed special education courses, but none was offered in rural Mexico where he lived before moving to the United States.

In an appeal filed a week ago, prosecutors asked the Arizona Court of Appeals to reinstate their effort to seek the death penalty in the shooting death of 21-year-old clerk Grant Ronnebeck, arguing the judge failed to make an overall assessment of Altamirano’s ability to meet society’s expectations of him.

The judge “did not give any consideration at all to Altamirano’s ability [to] adapt and adjust to the requirements of daily life as an adult,” prosecutors wrote in the appeal.

They noted Altamirano learned to drive at an early age, traveled on his own to the United States as teenager, operated rental properties in the United States and advised his mother on visas and exchange rates.

Joel Brown, one of the lawyers representing Altamirano, did not comment on the appeal.

The case against Altamirano has been cited by President Donald Trump, who has railed against crimes committed against American citizens by immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Trump, who has created a new office to serve victims of immigration crimes and their relatives, has invoked such crimes at rallies, pointing out cases in which people were killed by immigrant assailants who slipped through the cracks.

Altamirano is a citizen of Mexico who has lived in the United States without authorization for about 20 years. He was deported once and then returned to the United States.

He is accused of fatally shooting Ronnebeck after the store clerk insisted that Altamirano pay for a pack of cigarettes. He led officers on a high-speed chase before his arrest, and handguns were later found in his vehicle, police said.

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

He still faces murder, robbery and other charges in Ronnebeck’s death. He has pleaded not guilty to the remaining charges. His trial is scheduled for Aug. 1.

In an October decision, a judge prohibited prosecutors from introducing evidence at Altamirano’s trial that he was in the United States illegally. The judge said the prejudice from Altamirano’s immigration status outweighs any relevance it may have.

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

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