Gov. Katie Hobbs (D-Ariz.) announced a new executive order on Friday to establish a Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner to provide transparency around the state’s processes and protocols for executions.
In a statement, Hobbs’ office said she signed an executive order establishing the commissioner as part of her First 100 Days initiative to “build an Arizona for everyone,” which outlines the first 100 actions she will take as governor.
Hobbs’ office said the commissioner would be tasked with reviewing and providing transparency into the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) lethal injection drug and gas chamber chemical procurement process, execution protocols, and staffing considerations, including training and experience.
“With the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry now under new leadership, it’s time to address the fact that this is a system that needs better oversight on numerous fronts,” Hobbs said in a statement. “Arizona has a history of mismanaged executions that have resulted in serious questions and concerns about ADCRR’s execution protocols and lack of transparency. I’m confident that under Director [Ryan] Thornell, ADCRR will take this executive action seriously.”
The appointment of the Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner is expected to improve the transparency and accountability of the ADCRR’s execution process, and to provide recommendations for improving the overall safety of the process, according to Hobbs’ office.
The governor’s office said that at the end of the review period, the commissioner’s report will be released, which would include recommendations on improving the transparency, accountability, and safety of the execution process.
“I welcome Governor Hobbs’ efforts to increase transparency and oversight into Arizona’s execution process and protocols,” said Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes. “I look forward to the full report from the Commissioner and to ensuring that if executions are carried out, they are handled in a transparent and accountable manner in our state.”
AG Withdraws Prisoner Death Warrant
On Friday, Mayes’s office filed a motion (pdf) in the Arizona Supreme Court to withdraw the only pending death warrant, effectively halting executions in the state.
Mayes sought to withdraw the death warrant for prisoner Aaron Gunches, who initially filed to begin his own execution proceedings on Nov. 25, 2022, but later reversed his decision in a filing on Jan. 4, requesting his motion be withdrawn, according to Mayes.
“My predecessor’s administration sought a warrant of execution for Mr. Gunches after he initiated the proceedings himself. These circumstances have now changed,” Mayes said in a statement.
“However, that is not the only reason I am now requesting the previous motion be withdrawn,” she continued. “A thorough review of Arizona’s protocols and processes governing capital punishment is needed.”
Arizona wouldn’t be alone in ordering such a review of execution practices, with Mayes office noting that similar reviews had been ordered by “officials from both parties around the country, and at least one such review recently revealed numerous problems, including failures to follow execution protocols.”
“If Arizona is going to execute individuals, it should have a system for doing so that is transparent, accountable, and faithful to our Constitution and the rule of law,” Mayes continued. “I look forward to working with the Governor, the newly established commissioner, and others to ensure the public’s confidence in Arizona’s capital punishment system.”
Arizona halted executions for eight years after the July 2014 execution of Joseph Wood who was administered 15 doses of a two-drug mixture over a period of two hours, in a process that his legal representatives argued was botched. Arizona’s protocol only calls for two doses.
Wood was reported to have made repeated snorting sounds and gasped more than 600 times before his death. The state has had difficulties procuring execution drugs in recent years as U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies have refused to allow their products to be used in lethal injections.
Former Gov. Doug Ducey and former state Attorney General Mark Brnovich resumed executions in 2022. The executions of three death row inmates were carried out in 2022 for Clarence Dixon, Frank Atwood, and Murray Hooper.
In May 2022, Dixon was the first to be executed since 2014, for killing a college student in 1978. In June 2022, Atwood was executed for killing an 8-year-old girl in 1984. In November 2022, Hooper was executed for killing two people in 1980.
Gunches, whose execution has effectively been halted, was given a death sentence for the 2002 killing of Ted Price, a former long-term partner of Gunches’ girlfriend. He kidnapped Price and shot him several times in a desert area near the Beeline Highway.
In 2004, Gunches pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and kidnapping and has consistently declined legal representation, mitigation efforts, and post-conviction proceedings.
After Gunches requested his own execution in November 2022, Brnovich filed a response on Dec. 7, 2022, moving for the state Supreme Court to issue a warrant of execution. In her court filing, Mayes said the state wouldn’t have moved for that death warrant if Gunches “had not asked to be executed.”
Arizona has employed lethal injection as a means of execution since 1993, with multiple lengthy pauses in carrying out death sentences in the years since.