Arizona Supreme Court rejects bid to reschedule execution

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Arizona Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs gives the State of the State address at the Arizona Capitol, Jan. 9, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

The Arizona Supreme Court declined Wednesday to reschedule an execution initially set for this week that looked unlikely to be carried out after Gov. Katie Hobbs’ office said the state wasn’t prepared to enforce the death penalty.

In an order, the court rejected setting a May 1 execution date for prisoner Aaron Gunches for his murder conviction in the 2002 killing of Ted Price near the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. The execution was originally scheduled for Thursday.

Hobbs, who has ordered a review of Arizona’s death penalty protocols due to the state’s history of mismanaging executions, had vowed not to enforce any death sentences until there’s confidence the state can enforce the death penalty without violating the law.

In late March, the state Supreme Court rejected a request from Price’s sister, Karen Price, to order Hobbs to carry out the execution. The court concluded Hobbs wasn’t required to do so.

Price’s sister and his daughter, Brittany Kay, have since filed a lawsuit that seeks to force Hobbs to execute Gunches.

Colleen Clase, an attorney for Karen Price who focuses on crime victims’ rights, did not respond to an email and text request for comment Wednesday.

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell had also asked the court to extend the execution warrant by 25 days. Representatives from her office also did not respond to an email request seeking comment.

Gunches had pleaded guilty to a murder charge in the shooting death of Ted Price, who was his girlfriend’s ex-husband.

Lawyers for Hobbs have said the state lacks staff with expertise to carry out an execution, was unable to find an IV team to carry out the lethal injection, and doesn’t currently have a contract for a pharmacist to compound the pentobarbital needed for an execution. They also said a top corrections leadership position that’s critical to planning executions remains unfilled.

An email requesting a response from the governor’s office was also unanswered.

Some requirements for carrying out executions under the state’s death penalty protocol have not been met in Gunches’ case.

The corrections department said the warrant of execution issued by the state Supreme Court wasn’t read to Gunches. And Gunches wasn’t moved to a special “death watch” cell where he would be monitored around the clock and remain until his execution.

Arizona, which currently has 110 prisoners on death row, carried out three executions last year. That followed 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, saying justice could be served and the victim’s families could get closure. In his last month in office, Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich asked the court for a warrant to execute Gunches.

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.

Gunches switched courses again, saying now that he wants to be executed and asked to be transferred to Texas, where, he wrote, “inmates can still get their sentences carried out.” Arizona’s high court denied the transfer.

Republished with the permission of The Associated Press.