Court: Arizona man convicted of murder is parole eligible

March 5, 2020 GMT

PHOENIX (AP) — A judge made an error when he sentenced a man to life in prison with the possibility of parole in a 1995 killing because state lawmakers had previously done away with parole, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Thursday, clearing the way for him to apply for release this spring.

The dispute centers on how a trial judge worded the life sentence that Abelardo Chaparro received in the fatal shooting of Reynaldo Martinez outside a Phoenix convenience store. The state’s highest court said the trial judge misapplied the law when granting parole eligibility and noted that prosecutors didn’t appeal Chaparro’s sentence.

It’s unclear whether the ruling will apply to other inmates in Chaparro’s position.

About 290 inmates in Arizona prisons may have similar sentences, a state corrections official said in a court filing nearly a year ago. Even so, Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office, which is defending corrections officials in the legal dispute, said Thursday’s ruling applies to only Chaparro.

But Lindsay Herf, one of the attorneys defending Chaparro, said she believes the ruling should apply to other inmates who have been sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder and have served the minimum number of years specified of their punishment.

Herf said she and other lawyers will request a parole hearing as soon as possible for Chaparro. “If granted parole, he would be released from prison sometime this summer,” Herf said.

The Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, whose director was sued as part of Chaparro’s bid to become eligible for parole, said it will determine which inmates are affected by Thursday’s decision.

Even though parole wasn’t available for crimes committed after January 1994, the trial court originally sentenced Chaparro to “the rest of (his) natural life without the possibility of parole for 25 years.” Several months later, the judge clarified that Chaparro was sentenced to “life without possibility of parole for 25 years.”

Lawyers defending the state said it appeared as though the judge at Chaparro’s trial judge and other judges had used pre-1994 form language in expressing punishments that hadn’t been updated to reflect the state’s parole prohibition. They argued the judge at Chaparro’s trial lacked the authority to make him eligible for parole.

The court order that clarified the sentence and the transcript of a related hearing showed the judge intended for Chaparro to be eligible for parole after serving 25 years, the state Supreme Court wrote, noting that if the reference to parole was incorrect or unintended, the judge could have corrected that element.

“Because it did not, the only reasonable inference is that the trial court intended ‘(l)ife without possibility of parole for 25 years’ to indicate that after 25 years Chaparro would be eligible for parole,” according to the Supreme Court decision.

The state argued the Supreme Court couldn’t enforce an illegally lenient sentence. Chaparro’s attorneys said the sentence was unambiguous and final under state law.

Chaparro will reach the 25-year mark on June 17.

The killing that Chaparro was convicted of occurred 16 months after Arizona abolished parole in 1993 for all crimes occurring after Jan. 1, 1994.

The Legislature changed state law in 2018 to make parole available to people who had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after serving the minimum number of years specified in the punishment.

The state argued the 2018 law didn’t apply to Chaparro because his first-degree murder conviction was the result of a jury verdict, not a guilty plea.