Supreme Court denies Arizona appeal of order for hearing on bias claim in death penalty case

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PHOENIX — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal by the state of Arizona in the case of a death row inmate who killed a librarian near Phoenix by stabbing her 37 times in the early 1990s.

The high court's action after several months of consideration clears the way for Richard Hurles to get a hearing in to whether the judge who sentenced him to death acted improperly during his case.

Hurles, 55, claimed Judge Ruth Hilliard was biased against him and should not have presided over his trial or sentencing. At issue is the judge's denial of a second lawyer to help in Hurles' capital defense and her defense of that ruling in subsequent judicial proceedings.

A jury convicted Hurles, and Hilliard sentenced him to death for killing librarian Kay Blanton in Buckeye. Hurles attempted to rape Blanton, stabbed her 37 times and kicked her so hard it tore her liver, the jury found. Authorities say Hurles caught a ride to a Phoenix bus station, discarding a bloody T-shirt and blue jeans in the desert before being arrested in Wickenburg.

Arizona courts and a federal trial judge upheld Hurles' death sentence. But 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 state appealed to the Supreme Court.

Hurles' lawyers said their client "was sentenced to death, not by a neutral arbiter, but by an adversary."

Hilliard has since retired from her position as judge in Maricopa County.

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