Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs has made a promise not to carry out the execution of Aaron Gunches, despite the state Supreme Court scheduling it for April 6. This move by the Democratic governor comes a day after the state Supreme Court said it must grant an execution warrant if certain appellate proceedings have concluded, and that those requirements were met in Gunches’ case.
Last week, Hobbs appointed retired U.S. Magistrate Judge David Duncan to examine the state’s procurement of lethal injection drugs and other death penalty protocols due to the state’s history of mismanaging executions. Hobbs’ promise not to execute Gunches is due to her concern about the state violating the law in carrying out the gravest of penalties.
Attorney General Kris Mayes’ office has stated that it will not seek court orders to carry out executions while Hobbs’ review is underway. Mayes, a Democrat who took office in January, tried to withdraw a request by her Republican predecessor, Mark Brnovich, for a warrant to Gunches. The court declined to withdraw the request on Thursday.
Although the court authorized Gunches’ execution, Hobbs maintains that its order does not require the state to carry it out. Dale Baich, a former federal public defender who teaches death penalty law at Arizona State University, said Hobbs can use her authority as the state’s chief executive when the state believes it cannot carry out an execution in a constitutionally acceptable manner.
“What the governor did is not unique,” said Baich, who applauded Hobbs’ move. “Governors in Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee recently used their authority to pause executions because they had serious questions about the protocols in their states.”
In her statement, Hobbs also said Arizona’s prison system has deep problems that require attention, citing a scathing court ruling that concluded the state had violated the rights of inmates in state-run prisons by providing them with inadequate medical and mental health care.
In her first month in office, Hobbs announced the creation of a commission to study a range of problems in Arizona’s prisons, including staffing levels, conditions inside prisons, and the health care offered to those behind bars.
Arizona has 110 prisoners on death row and carried out three executions last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus following criticism that a 2014 execution was botched and because of difficulties obtaining execution drugs. Since resuming executions, the state has been criticized for taking too long to insert an IV for lethal injection into a prisoner’s body in early May and for denying the Arizona Republic newspaper’s request to witness the last three executions.
Gunches is scheduled to be executed on April 6 for the 2002 killing of Ted Price, his girlfriend’s ex-husband, in Maricopa County. Gunches, who isn’t a lawyer, represented himself in November when he asked the Supreme Court to issue his execution warrant so justice could be served, and the victims could get closure. In Brnovich’s last month in office, his office asked the court for a warrant to execute Gunches. But Gunches withdrew his request in early January, and Mayes asked for the execution warrant submitted during Brnovich’s tenure to be withdrawn.
It is clear that Hobbs is determined to carry out a thorough review of Arizona’s death penalty protocols before proceeding with any executions. The problems with the state’s prison system, including inadequate medical and mental health care, also require urgent attention. It remains to be seen whether Hobbs’ actions will lead to a more just and humane system of justice in Arizona.