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Arizona Governor Cleans House, Restocks Clemency Board with Cronies and Hardliners

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer doesn't like making public decisions on the commutation of prison sentences. Or maybe she simply doesn't like justifying them.

In April 2012, Brewer—the Republican who boisterously defended the since-disproven legality of SB1070, and later wagged her finger in Barack Obama's face—replaced three of five members of Arizona's Board of Executive Clemency with new appointees certain to help Brewer pacify her friends in the private-prison industry by keeping recommendations for pardons and commutations off her desk.

But an attorney defending a death-row prisoner, Samuel Villegas Lopez, has since challenged the legitimacy of Brewer's appointees because they didn't complete four weeks of board training required by state law, along with at least 15 other alleged violations.

Kelly Henry, a federal assistant public defender, is now seeking a reprieve for Lopez, convicted in 1986 of rape and murder.

"None of ( the new appointees) have any experience in a due-process hearing." Henry said at Lopez's clemency hearing on May 7, nine days before his originally scheduled execution. "As we know it at this time, this board does not have the authority to conduct the hearing, or move forward."

The state Attorney General's Office, however, says that the statute Henry's referencing doesn't specify that clemency training has to occur before board members vote. Rather, according to Kent Cattani, chief counsel for capital cases in the AG's office, "the qualification to serve on the board is the ability to exercise their judgment."

Earlier this year, Brewer and her advisers simultaneously replaced Duane Belcher, the clemency board's then-chairman of 20 years; Marilyn Wilkens, who Brewer appointed in 2010; and Ellen Stenson, who was appointed by former Democratic governor (and current Secretary of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano in 2007.

"It's clear to me now that they are trying in any way they can to manipulate the outcome of clemency hearings," Belcher said. "If the cases don't go before the governor. she doesn't have to say yes or no.

According to Belcher, Brewer was displeased by the board's 2009 majority decision to grant clemency to convicted murderer William Macomber. And Wilkens said Brewer was dissatisfied that "I had not voted the way (the governor) wished that l would have voted," most likely in the board's unanimous decision in January 2012 to reduce Robert Flibotte’s 90-year sentence to five years for possession of child pornography.

Both recommendations were overruled by the governor.

The new board members are Brian Livingston, a retired police officer and executive director of the Arizona Police Association, who was still registered as a police-association lobbyist two weeks after his appointment; Melvin Thomas, a former Arizona warden who worked for prison profiteer GEO Group after working for Arizona's Department of Corrections for 21 years; and new clemency board chairman Jesse Hernandez. Hernandez has worked on some of Arizona's most recent high-profile conservative political campaigns, including leading a Republican Latino group's public support for the anti-immigration law SB1070, which was mostly declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this summer. Hernandez also was chairman of a group that failed to help SB1070 grand wizard Russell Pearce win his state senate recall election last November.

After the May 7 clemency hearing for Lopez, Hernandez said that Henry was "grasping at straws," and that he, Thomas and Livingston are "more than qualified to serve on the board."

Sources: The Arizona Republic.;

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