PHOENIX (AP) — Prosecutors can no longer seek the death penalty against a Mexican immigrant charged with murder in the 2015 shooting death of a convenience store clerk in a Phoenix suburb because the accused is intellectually disabled, a judge has ruled.
The ruling Wednesday means Apolinar Altamirano will face life in prison if he's convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of 21-year-old clerk Grant Ronnebeck at the store in Mesa.
The case against Altamirano has been cited by President Donald Trump, who has railed against crimes committed against American citizens by immigrants who are the United States illegally.
Trump, who has created a new office to serve victims of immigration crimes and their relatives, has invoked such crimes at rallies, pointing to case after case in which people were killed by immigrant assailants who slipped through the cracks.
It's unclear whether prosecutors will appeal the ruling. "We are reviewing the analysis and the record to assess next steps," according to a statement from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting Altamirano.
Altamirano is a citizen of Mexico who has lived in the United States without authorization for about 20 years. He was deported and returned to the United States.
He is accused of fatally shooting Ronnebeck after the store clerk insisted that Altamirano pay for a pack of cigarettes. Authorities say Altamirano stepped over Ronnebeck to get several packs of cigarettes before leaving the store.
He led officers on a high-speed chase before his arrest, and a handgun and unopened pack of cigarettes were later found in his vehicle, police said.
Altamirano has already been sentenced to six years in prison for his earlier guilty pleas in the case to misconduct involving weapons.
He still faces murder, robbery and other charges in Ronnebeck's death. He has pleaded not guilty to the remaining charges. His trial is scheduled for Aug. 1.
Judge Michael Kemp concluded Altamirano, 34, has subaverage intellectual functioning, explaining Altamirano had completed only the fifth grade and needed special education courses but none was offered in rural Mexico where he lived before moving to the United States.
In an October decision, Kemp prohibited prosecutors from introducing evidence at Altamirano's trial that he was in the United States illegally. The judge said the prejudice from Altamirano's immigration status outweighs any relevance it may have.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of intellectually disabled people.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.