PHOENIX – The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that state law doesn’t require Gov. Katie Hobbs to carry out the April 6 execution of a prisoner who was convicted of murder.
The decision issued Wednesday 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 high court had set the April execution date for Aaron Gunches, who fatally shot Ted Price near Mesa, Arizona, in 2002.
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 while the state reviews death penalty protocols that she ordered because of Arizona's history of mismanaging executions.
Gunches took part in a brief hearing Thursday before Arizona's clemency board, which can recommend to the governor that prisoners’ sentences be lessened and that they be given reprieves of execution. He voluntarily gave up his right to ask for clemency.
The five-minute meeting was held to double-check that Gunches had waived his chance at relief. “Yes, ma’am,” Gunches said through a video conferencing link, confirming his decision to Mina Mendez, who chairs the board.
Lawyers for Hobbs said the corrections department lacks staff with proper expertise and does not have a current contract for a pharmacist to compound the pentobarbital needed for an execution. They also said 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.
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.
In a statement Thursday, Hobbs said the ruling will allow corrections officials "to ensure any execution conducted under this administration will be done lawfully and humanely.”
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, declined to comment on the decision.
Gunches pleaded guilty to murdering Ted Price, who was his girlfriend's ex-husband.
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, 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.