Aggregating is Aggravating: Unitary Offenses and Their Effects on Defendant Rights

This Note examines how unitary offenses affect defendants’ rights in the state of Arizona. In Arizona, first-degree murder, along with several other felony crimes, has been designated a unitary offense—a single offense that can be committed in multiple ways (e.g., premeditation or felony murder). For unitary offenses, a jury must unanimously agree that the offense happened, but it does not have to agree on the exact way in which it happened. This conflicts with a defendant’s right to a unanimous jury verdict and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Unitary offenses also present issues pertaining to a defendant’s right to notice of the charges against him. If a defendant is charged with a nonunitary offense and the statute has multiple subsections, the particular subsection that the defendant is being charged under must be listed in the indictment; otherwise, the defendant was not provided sufficient notice. However, unitary offenses do not require the same specificity, calling into question whether a defendant can adequately prepare a defense to the charges brought against him. To examine how unitary offenses affect defendants’ rights, this Note analyzes specific Arizona case law, other state and federal case law, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions addressing the issue. In an attempt to preserve the wise and fair administration of justice, this Note also proposes its own theories for addressing some of the negative implications of unitary offenses.