Maricopa County Attorney files brief opposing Gov. Hobbs in death penalty case

Mar 14, 2023, 11:03 AM | Updated: Mar 17, 2023, 8:34 am
Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, left, and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs headshots...
Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, left, and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs. ( and Arizona Governor's Office Photos)
( and Arizona Governor's Office Photos)

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell filed a brief on Monday opposing Gov. Katie Hobbs’ decision to not carry out an execution warrant issued by the Arizona Supreme Court.

“As county attorney, I took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution and laws of the state of Arizona,” Mitchell said in a statement.

“These recognize that both the victim and the accused have rights. Our brief recognizes and supports the right of victims to a ‘prompt and final conclusion of the case.'”

Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a warrant to execute Aaron Gunches on April 6 for the 2002 murder of Ted Price.

Gunches pleaded guilty in 2004 to killing Price, his girlfriend’s ex-husband. He was sentenced to death in 2008 and again in 2013 after the Arizona Supreme Court found an error in the first sentencing proceeding.

Hobbs, who previously ordered an in-depth review of Arizona’s death penalty process, said the state has no intention of carrying out the execution, arguing the warrant only “authorizes” it and “does not require it.”

The victim’s sister, Karen Price, submitted a petition for special action last week asking the Arizona Supreme Court to direct Hobbs to carry out the warrant.

In an amicus curiae brief in support of the petition, Mitchell disagreed with Hobbs’ position.

“Nothing in the Constitution or laws of Arizona or the warrant gives the governor discretion to ignore the warrant and grant what essentially constitutes a temporary reprieve from the death penalty,” the brief says.

Mitchell also argues that Hobbs’ decision violates Arizona’s Victim Bill of Rights, specifically a victim’s right to finality.

On Jan. 20, less than three weeks after taking office, Hobbs ordered a review of the death penalty process because of the state’s history of executions that were allegedly mishandled.

Attorney General Kris Mayes, a Democrat like Hobbs, then pledged not to seek execution warrants until the review was completed. She also asked the Supreme Court to withdraw a request by her Republican predecessor, Mark Brnovich, for a warrant to execute Gunches.

The high court, however, ruled March 2 it was legally obligated to grant the warrant because Gunches had exhausted his appeals.

Hobbs responded by saying the ruling doesn’t force the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry to take action.

“Under my administration, an execution will not occur until the people of Arizona can have confidence that the state is not violating the law in carrying out the gravest of penalties,” she said in a statement.

In February, Hobbs appointed David Duncan, a retired federal judge, to serve as Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner and oversee the review she ordered in January.

Duncan’s task is to thoroughly examine the corrections department’s execution protocols and issue a report with recommendations for improvements.

Arizona, which currently has 110 prisoners on death row, carried out three executions last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus that was brought on by 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 condemned prisoner’s body in early May and for denying the Arizona Republic newspaper’s request to witness the last three executions.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Maricopa County Attorney files brief opposing Gov. Hobbs in death penalty case