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Condemned Arizona Prisoner Reprieved

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On June 22, 2023, the chief prosecutor in Arizona’s Maricopa County dropped a suit filed to force the state to execute condemned prisoner Aaron Gunches. As previously reported by PLN, the state Supreme Court issued a death warrant on March 2, 2023, authorizing the execution of Gunches, who had asked to die as quickly as possible, only to ask later that his request be ignored, after reports that the state botched three other killings. [See: PLN, Mar. 21, 2023, online.]

In one, executioners forgot to bring anesthetic for Murray Hooper, 76, who then suffered through two attempts to suture an IV line in his femoral artery before his lethal injection in November 2022. Frank Atwood, 66, also had to help another fumbling group of executioners locate a suitable vein for his lethal injection in June 2022. Clarence Dixon, 66, was killed in May 2022 with a lethal injection of drugs his attorneys argued were past their expiration date.

The Court ignored Gunches’ change of heart, however, issuing his death warrant in early March 2023. By then, though, newly elected Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) had formed a Death Penalty Independent Review Committee in January 2023, halting executions while it performed its work – including Gunches’ date with death, for his 2004 guilty plea to kidnapping and murdering Ted Price, his girlfriend’s ex-husband.

 The victim’s sister, Karen Price, petitioned the Court to order Hobbs to carry out Gunches’ execution. But the Court refused on March 22, 2023, agreeing with David Duncan, a retired state judge tapped to lead the review panel, that the death warrant authorizes the governor to carry out the killing but does not require she do so. See: Price v. Hobbs, Ariz., Case No. CV-23-005 (2023).

That wasn’t the end of the matter, though. Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell accompanied Price back to the Court, accusing Hobbs and state Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-Entry (DCRR) Director Ryan Thornell of violating the state’s Victim’s Bill of Rights.

Less than two months later, Ryan testified to state lawmakers on May 5, 2023, that DCRR was “operationally ready” to resume executions. Mitchell and Price then dropped their suit on June 22, 2023. See: Price v. Hobbs, Ariz., Case No.CR-13-0282 (2023).

“Basically, it was ‘mission accomplished,’” Mitchell declared.

Except it wasn’t. Gunches was reprieved, since his death warrant had expired. And it was unlikely another would soon be sought, either by him or by state Attorney General Kris Mayes (D), who has vowed to wait first for the report from Duncan’s review panel.

It’s also unclear how Thornell got to “operationally ready” just six weeks after telling the Court that DCRR could not subject its stock of execution drugs to efficacy testing because it lacked staff “with the necessary institutional knowledge and expertise to conduct an execution.”   


Sources: Arizona Republic/KPNX, KTAR

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Related legal case

Price v. Hobbs