The U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed a direct challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty on Monday. It refused to hear an Arizona contract killer’s argument that it amounts to impermissible cruel and unusual punishment and that American society has reached a consensus on the need to strike it down, Reuters reports. The justices rejected inmate Abel Daniel Hidalgo’s bid to strike down Arizona’s death penalty law, which he argued makes too many defendants in the state eligible for capital punishment. Hidalgo fatally shot two men at a body shop in 2001 after being paid $1,000 by a gang member. Under Arizona law, the death penalty can be meted out when the crime involved at least one of a list of 14 “aggravating circumstances,” such as committing prior serious offenses or murdering for monetary gain. The number of aggravating factors has risen steadily, and 99 percent of first-degree murder defendants are eligible for capital punishment, Hidalgo said.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who has criticized the way the death penalty is used in the U.S., said that Arizona’s highest court wrongly applied U.S. Supreme Court precedent and that the state’s system “points to a possible constitutional problem.” He was joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hidalgo said that in Arizona as elsewhere, racial minorities are disproportionately affected and some counties impose the death penalty at much higher rates than others, showing that the punishment is arbitrary. Since the high court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the number of executions carried out in the U.S. States has generally been declining since 2000. A majority of states have either outlawed capital punishment or no longer carry out executions. Opinion polls have showed dropping public support for the death penalty, and several botched executions in recent years have added to societal concern over the practice. “In short,” Hidalgo’s lawyers wrote, “the death penalty has become a rare and ‘freakish’ punishment.”