- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - A judge has rejected a challenge that Arizona’s death penalty law is unconstitutionally arbitrary, setting the stage for a likely appeal.

Judge Joseph Kraemer of Maricopa County Superior Court on Friday denied a motion filed on behalf of 29 murder defendants but expressed unease with the current law.

“I’ll be clear: I am troubled by what I see as a lack of narrowing in the statute,” Kreamer said. “I think that’s problematic from a constitutional standpoint.”

Under U.S. Supreme Court decisions, death is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst murders, and states’ laws are supposed to define those cases.

At issue are the Arizona law’s 14 possible circumstances when the death penalty could apply. Those so-called “aggravating factors” include prior convictions, prison escapes, child victims, use of hired killers or stun guns, and offenses committed “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner.”

“I’m troubled by the direction we’ve gone,” Kreamer said.

However, Kraemer noted that the Arizona law has been upheld by the state Supreme Court, the Arizona Republic (https://goo.gl/97796s) reported.

The defendants’ lawyers contend that the death penalty law is unconstitutionally arbitrary because a death sentence could be sought in nearly all cases, leaving prosecutors with too much leeway in picking cases to seek the death penalty.

A Maricopa County prosecutor argued that not all homicide cases are charged as first-degree murder.

The distinctions between first-degree and second-degree murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide narrow the eligible case, said Jeannette Gallagher, a deputy county attorney.

A higher court is “going to have to decide if that’s enough narrowing,” Kreamer said.

Defense attorneys challenging the law said they likely will take the matter to the Arizona Court of Appeals.

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