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Arizona Supreme Court Asked to Order Governor to Carry Out Prisoner’s Execution, Despite Three Botched Killings in 2022

by Jo Ellen Nott

Convicted murderer Aaron Gunches is scheduled to die by lethal injection in Arizona on April 6, 2023. But Gov. Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes, both newly elected in November 2022, say the state is not ready, after the last three executions ran into trouble. Ryan Thornell, the newly appointed Director of the state Department of Correction, Rehabilitation and Reentry (DCRR), agrees. Now the Arizona Supreme Court is considering ordering them to carry out Gunches’ killing anyway.

During the most recent killing on November 11, 2022, executioners forgot to bring anesthetic for Murray Hooper, 76. It then took two tries to insert an IV line in the femoral artery in his groin and suture it into place.

On June 8, 2022, Frank Atwood, 66, had to help another fumbling group of executioners locate a suitable vein for his lethal injection.

Not quite a month before that, on May 11, 2022, Clarence Dixon, 66, was killed with a lethal injection of drugs his attorneys argued were passed their expiration date.

The two Democratic state executives filed a motion to withdraw the request for Gunches’ death warrant made by Mayes’ GOP predecessor, Mark Brnovich. But the state Supreme Court ignored them and issued the current warrant anyway.

Meanwhile, on January 20, 2023, the governor appointed a Death Penalty Independent Review Committee, led by retired state Judge David Duncan, to investigate Arizona’s execution process. Saying the state would pause executions until the review was complete, the governor notrd that the death warrant “authorizes” an execution but does not “require” one.

The review will examine the procurement process for lethal injection drugs and lethal gas, as well as execution procedures; access of news organizations to executions; and staff training to carry out executions. Hobb’s Republican predecessor, Doug Ducey, had barred the door of the execution chamber to the state’s largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, accusing it of reporting “fake news.” Atwood’s execution team reportedly consisted of DCRR employees untrained in IV insertion – in fact, they had practiced only on a prosthetic arm.

Having resumed executions in 2022 after an eight-year-pause, Arizona currently has 110 prisoners left on its death row. Before leaving office in early 2023, Brnovich had filed for death warrants for 20 of them, plus the three men killed in 2022.

Gunches, who was convicted of kidnapping and fatally shooting his girlfriend’s ex-husband in 2002, filed a request for his own death warrant in November 2022. But he filed to withdraw it two months later, after reading news stories about the three troubled executions in 2022. The Court ignored his request and issued his current death warrant.

The state Board of Executive Clemency could authorize a reprieve for Gunches at a hearing on March 26, 2023. But Karen Price, the sister of Gunches’ victim, petitioned the Court to order the governor to carry out the sentence sooner, saying the family “is now being victimized by the governor’s failure to recognize and uphold our constitutional rights to justice and finality.”

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell also asked the Court to enforce the execution warrant because Price and her family “need to have that final resolution to get justice for their loved ones.”

“This matter is not whether Gunches was convicted of and sentenced to death for a heinous crime or whether the victims of that crime deserve justice. He was, and they do,” the state’s filing said. It insisted that Hobbs and Thornell “are committed to fulfilling their duties under the Constitution and laws of Arizona, but do not believe they can presently carry out an execution consistent with those duties.” See: Arizona v. Gunches, Ariz., Case No. CR-13-0282.

Additional sources:  AP News, Arizona Republic, Cronkite News, Daily Mail, KTAR

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