Court: Arizona governor not required to carry out execution

The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that state law doesn’t require Gov. Katie Hobbs to carry out execution of a prisoner who is scheduled to be put to death on April 6 for his conviction in a 2002 killing

Jacques Billeaud
Thursday 23 March 2023 03:01 GMT

The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that state law doesn’t require Gov. Katie Hobbs to carry out execution of a prisoner who is scheduled to be put to death on April 6 for his conviction in a 2002 killing.

The decision marks a legal victory for the newly elected Democratic governor whose office said the state isn’t currently prepared to carry out the death penalty. The court had previously set the April 6 date for the execution of Aaron Gunches for his conviction in the shooting death of Ted Price near Mesa, Arizona. The order came after Hobbs said executions will not be carried out until Arizonans can be confident that the state isn’t violating constitutional rights when it enforces the death penalty.

The governor vowed two weeks ago that she wouldn’t carry out the court’s order to execute Gunches on April 6, citing the review of death penalty protocols that she ordered because of Arizona’s history of mismanaging executions.

Lawyer for Hobbs said that the department lacks staff with proper expertise and does not have a contract right now for a pharmacist to compound the pentobarbital needed for an execution, and that corrections officials are unable to find out the identity of the state’s prior compounding pharmacist, who primarily had contact with an official no longer with the department.

They also said a top corrections leadership position critical to planning executions remains unfilled.

Corrections Director Ryan Thornell has said he was unable to find enough documentation to understand key elements of the execution process and instead has had to piece it together through conversations with employees on what might have occurred in past executions.

Hobbs maintained that while the court authorized Gunches’ execution, its order doesn’t require the state to carry it out.

Karen Price, whose brother was the victim in Gunches’ case, had asked the court to order Hobbs to carry out the execution. Colleen Clase, an attorney for Karen Price, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment on Wednesday evening.

Arizona, which currently has 110 prisoners on death row, carried out three executions last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus brought on by criticism that a 2014 execution was botched and because of difficulties obtaining execution drugs.

Since then, the state has been criticized for taking too long to insert an IV for lethal injection into a condemned prisoner’s body and for denying the Arizona Republic permission to witness the three executions.

Gunches was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to murder in the shooting death of Ted Price, his girlfriend’s ex-husband.

Gunches, who is not a lawyer, represented himself in November when he asked the Supreme Court to issue his execution warrant so that, he said, justice could be served and the victim's families could get closure. In Republican Mark Brnovich’s last month as state attorney general, his office asked the court for a warrant to execute Gunches.

But Gunches then withdrew his request in early January, and newly elected Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes later asked for the warrant to be withdrawn.

The state Supreme Court rejected Mayes’ request, saying that it must grant an execution warrant if certain appellate proceedings have concluded and that those requirements were met in Gunches’ case.

In another reversal, Gunches said in a filing that he still wants to be executed and asked to be transferred to Texas, where, he wrote, “the law is still followed and inmates can still get their sentences carried out.” Arizona’s high court denied the transfer.

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