Does dropped lawsuit mark movement in Arizona death penalty situation?

Jun 22, 2023, 2:30 PM

Mugshot of convicted killer Aaron Gunches and a file photo of an execution chamber. A lawsuit relat...

(Aaron Gunches - Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Getty Images Photos)

(Aaron Gunches - Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Getty Images Photos)

PHOENIX — A lawsuit related to the death penalty in Arizona has been settled, officials said Thursday, marking possible early movement toward the resumption of executions in the state.

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said the suit was one in a series of legal efforts pushing for the execution of Aaron Gunches, who was sentenced to death for the 2002 murder of Ted Price.

Mitchell said she and Price’s family agreed to withdraw the lawsuit after gaining confirmation that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry is now operationally prepared to carry out executions.

“Basically, it was mission accomplished,” Mitchell told KTAR News 92.3 FM. “We didn’t need to pursue it any further because the issues were resolved and the questions were answered.”

Other steps would be need to be taken before the state could execute Gunches or other death row inmates.

The state would have to secure a compounding pharmacist to prepare the lethal drugs used, and Attorney General Kris Mayes would have to request and receive a new execution warrant from the Arizona Supreme Court.

Execution warrants are set for a limited time, and one set for Gunches earlier this year has expired.

Mitchell said the Department of Corrections is “acting in good faith to obtain” a compounding pharmacist.

As for the warrant, Mayes said in January she should wouldn’t initiate the process until the independent investigation of the state’s death penalty process ordered by Gov. Katie Hobbs was completed.

Hobbs announced the investigation in January, shortly after taking office, and in February appointed retired federal Judge David Duncan to thoroughly review the state’s execution protocols and issue a report with recommendations for improvements.

It’s not clear when Duncan’s report will come out. Mitchell said her office spoke with him this week as part of the review.

The fact that Department of Corrections is now operationally prepared to carry out executions hasn’t changed Mayes’ persective.

“The Attorney General’s Office continues to await the independent review by Judge David Duncan, appointed by Gov. Hobbs earlier this year. That review remains ongoing,” Richie Taylor, communications director for the AGO, told KTAR News in an email Thursday.

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

Last November, Gunches asked the Arizona Supreme Court to issue a death warrant in his own case, saying he wanted justice to “be lawfully served and give closure to the victim’s family.” In December, then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich requested a warrant of execution.

Mayes asked the state Supreme Court to withdraw Brnovich’s request, but the court ruled it was legally obligated to grant the warrant because Gunches had exhausted his appeals.

Hobbs, however, argued the state was not legally obligated to carry out the warrant, and the high court agreed with her.

Mitchell maintains that Hobbs and Mayes don’t have the authority to discontinue the death penalty.

“Our focus on this is to make sure justice is done, the law is followed and that the victims receive justice,” Mitchell said.

“And so any moves on the part of the AG and the governor need to be done expeditiously so that the law can be carried out and the victims can receive that justice.”

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Taylor Tasler contributed to this report.

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Does dropped lawsuit mark movement in Arizona death penalty situation?