Judge's bias in Ariz. death case before justices

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court has spent nearly six months wrestling with a dispute between an Arizona judge and the man she sentenced to death for killing a librarian.

It's not clear why the court so far has been unable to decide what to do with the case of convicted killer Richard Hurles and his claim that Judge Ruth Hilliard was biased against him and should not have presided over his trial or sentencing. The dispute's roots are in the judge's denial of a second lawyer to help in Hurles' capital defense and her defense of that ruling in subsequent judicial proceedings.

The case is again before the justices for their scheduled meeting Friday.

A jury convicted Hurles and Hilliard sentenced him to death for killing librarian Kay Blanton in Buckeye, Ariz., just west of Phoenix, in 1992. Hurles attempted to rape Blanton, stabbed her 37 times and kicked her so hard it tore her liver, the jury found. Arizona courts and a federal trial judge upheld Hurles' death sentence.

But then a panel of federal appellate judges sided with Hurles by a 2-1 vote and ordered a lower court to evaluate whether Hilliard's actions before the trial showed she could not fairly preside in the case.

The 9th Circuit has a history of questioning death sentences, and the Supreme Court has a history of chastising the circuit for second-guessing state trial and appellate courts.

But until the justices render a decision, it is impossible to explain the delay.

Hurles' lawyers said their client "was sentenced to death, not by a neutral arbiter, but by an adversary." Hilliard's decision to deny Hurles a second court-appointed lawyer triggered legal wrangling that led to court filings in the judge's name defending her actions. She also improperly communicated with the attorney general's office, the lawyers said.

The state said the appeals court should have deferred to the prior court ruling.

Hilliard has since retired from the bench. She declined to comment on the case.

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