The 1982 Cochise murder trial and conviction of Art Amarillas drew little attention outside of Bisbee, and with good reason: That Amarillas shot his friend Ismael "Miley" Teran to death in a drunken rage never was in doubt.
At trial, Amarillas' attorneys had attempted to show that his acute alcoholism had caused him to go legally insane. The jury scoffed at the notion and quickly found him guilty. Amarillas was sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole for 25 years. He is in the state prison in Florence, midway through his term.
But in March, Amarillas won a new day in court. His avenue to freedom was a legal petition called a Rule 32, in which prisoners rest their hopes on allegedly "newly discovered evidence" or perceived constitutional violations.
Amarillas' argument was simple: He had been swayed by his unscrupulous defense attorneys to take his chances at trial, instead of accepting a plea bargain that likely would have put him behind bars for only seven years. His theory, as posed by his court-appointed attorney, Stan Lehman, was that the trial attorneys had drawn out the proceedings to make more money on the case.
Rule 32 petitions are a dime a dozen and are almost always thrown out of court. But this one was exceptional:
Members of Amarillas' family--many of whom live in the Phoenix area--attended the hearing and harbored high hopes that Amarillas would win a new trial. Now in his late 40s, Amarillas is considered a model inmate who works as an accountant for a prison business.
One of Amarillas' trial attorneys admitted under oath at Amarillas' two-day Rule 32 hearing that his lawyering had been ineffective. The trial judge testified that he'd been shocked when Amarillas had rejected an eminently fair plea bargain before trial. One of the case prosecutors stated he couldn't believe the Amarillas team had attempted to win acquittal with an insanity defense.
Because of the time he's already served, it was widely believed that a new trial would, in effect, spring Amarillas from prison.
Members of Arizona's criminal-justice bar were keenly interested in the outcome of Amarillas' Rule 32 effort. Some defense attorneys briefed on the issues expressed dismay over Amarillas' long sentence. But they worried more about the precedent that could have been set if appellate arguments by second-guessing convicts pass muster.
Last week, however, Cochise County Superior Court Judge Stephen Desens allayed their fears when he rejected Amarillas' petition.
"This case proves again that hindsight is 20/20," Desens wrote in a ten-page opinion. "It appears undisputed in retrospect that the defendant . . . would have been better off accepting the offered plea bargain in October 1982 instead of proceeding to trial and being convicted of first-degree murder. However, this is not the legal standard upon review in the state of Arizona."
Desens also concluded: "[Amarillas'] election to go to trial was a voluntary choice and in the nature of a strategic tactical decision . . ."
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The judge's conclusions counter those of Tucson attorney Bob Hirsh, an expert in insanity-defense law.
"It's the stupid ones who don't get good legal advice and do the time," Hirsh told Desens during Amarillas' hearing. "The smart get out."
Amarillas will be eligible for parole in 2007, according to Department of Corrections records.