As black curtains were drawn March 29 to cover the corpse of Eric J. King, the 89th person Arizona has executed, three Republican legislators left the death chamber with their support of the ultimate punishment intact, while a fourth still had some reservations.
Arizona’s death chamber has been used sparingly since 2000, the result of the naturally lengthy appeals process of capital punishment and U.S. Supreme Court death-penalty cases that put all other cases on hold. King’s death is the second in an upsurge of executions that hasn’t been seen in the state since 1999, when seven inmates were executed.
King was the third person to be executed since 2007 and second since October. The state has scheduled another lethal injection on April 5 for Daniel Wayne Cook, and there are three death warrants pending with the Arizona Supreme Court.
The flurry of executions comes after the resolution of several high-profile court cases reformed how Arizona sent felons to death row and determined that lethal injection didn’t violate the prisoner’s constitutional rights.
The state’s 127 men and three women on death row constitute one of the largest populations in the nation. Since 2000, three inmates have been executed, and one of them had to fight vigorously to be put to death.
“It’s not a state that’s blood thirsty,” said Richard Dieter, executive director for the Death Penalty Information Center.
Arizona may seem blood thirsty in the coming months, however, with Cook’s scheduled execution and the pending warrants.
Arizona hadn’t executed anyone for
30 years until Donald Harding died in the gas chamber in 1992, but there were 22 more until Nov. 8, 2000, when Don Miller received lethal injection for his role in the murder of a woman to help a friend escape child support.
Many capital cases were put on hold for years during the last decade as the U.S. Supreme Court considered two landmark decisions that came out of Arizona, said Dale Baich, who leads the Capital Habeus Unit of the Federal Public Defenders Office in Phoenix.
The first was the 2002 decision of Ring v. Arizona, a case in which the Supreme Court found that Arizona’s death-penalty sentencing structure was unconstitutional.
The other case, Schriro v. Summerlin, followed two years later and took up the question of whether Ring applied to capital cases that had reached the federal appeals stage.
Baich said cases started moving again after the June 2004 Summerlin decision, but then stopped again in 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court accepted review of Baze v. Rees, a case that questioned whether the use of lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The court issued its decision in May 2008 approving lethal injection, but no one in Arizona had reached the point of a death warrant until Jeffrey Landrigan, who was executed Oct. 26.
Robert Comer, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the 1987 slaying of camper Larry Pritchard and the rape of a woman near Apache Lake, was state’s sole execution from 2000 to 2010. The state put him to death on May 22, 2007, after he fought for more than seven years to prove he was competent to end his federal appeals.
Baich said the state is seeking death warrants for Donald Beaty, Thomas West and Richard Bible, and if they are executed, then there will probably be another lull because there no other prisoners are near the end of their appeals process.
As for the legislators who attended King’s death, those coming executions serve as a reminder that the state is carrying out justice.
“It affirmed my position that when we execute someone, especially in a humane way in which it was carried out this morning. I think it certainly is something most of those, if not all of those on death row, didn’t afford their victims,” said Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican.
Farnsworth was joined by Reps. Cecil Ash, Terri Proud, and Ted Vogt in the cramped viewing gallery of the state’s death chamber in its Florence prison, where King smiled broadly at the 23 witnesses from behind a glass partition before he was injected with a series of drugs that tranquilized him, paralyzed him and then stopped his heart.
Vogt, a Tucson Republican, said he wanted to attend to see if reality matched his theory of the death penalty, which it did for him.
“I wasn’t certain how I would feel going into it, and after leaving, I feel that I still support the death penalty,” Vogt said.
Proud, R-Tucson, whose support for the death penalty was unchanged, had little to say immediately after the execution.
“We do have a judicial system and it works,” Proud said.
Ash, R-Mesa, said he was impressed with the peaceful, humane way King died, but expressed reservations about the death penalty.
King wore an orange prison jumpsuit as he lay under a white sheet that was pulled to his neck. After smiling and waving a hand from under the sheet at friends and family in attendance, he began closing his eyes as if bracing himself.
With his rich baritone voice, he gave a simple “no” when asked if he had any last words.
Eventually, his chest heaved slightly, his lips parted and he appeared to fall asleep. He was pronounced dead 22 minutes after the execution began.
“I actually thought to myself, if you wanted to let a man suffer, you’d let him grow old in prison,” Ash said. “Growing old is tough.”
But Ash said he believes death penalty cases are too costly, too risky and too lengthy to be a deterrent to crime.
“It worries me (that) we might put to death someone who is innocent,” said Ash, whose support for the death penalty prompted him to inquire about legislation to speed up the process in the state.
Convicted killers spend decades appealing their crimes in Arizona. King shot and killed convenience store owner Ronald Barman and security guard Richard Butts on Dec. 27, 1989, in a robbery that netted $72.84. He was sentenced to death on March 4, 1991.
Ash said the millions of dollars that are used in capital cases are better spent on other priorities, such as restoring organ transplants for Medicaid recipients. Last year, legislators cut that funding from the state budget as part of a plan to bridge the state’s deficit.
Farnsworth said justice can’t always be measured in dollars and cents.
“I think the policy of the death penalty is more about the philosophy that there is a consequence in some cases,” Farnsworth said.
Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the economic issue will often prompt a legislative hearing, but the debate tends to devolve into philosophical views of the death penalty.
Larry Hammond, a criminal defense attorney who chairs the Justice Project, an Arizona organization that helps people who have been wrongfully convicted and falsely accused, said he believes the economic issue won’t gain traction with the Legislature because most of the cost of capital punishment falls to counties.
Since 1995, only one state has adopted the death penalty while three have repealed it, the most recent being Illinois, whose governor signed legislation on March 9.
It took that state several death row exonerations and 10 years to change its law, Dieter said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill to abolish the death penalty on March 18, 2009, while New Jersey did the same in December 2007.
Dieter said the national trend over the years has been 60-percent fewer death sentences and half as many executions since 2000.
“In Arizona, death sentences have been keeping up, but not that many executions,” Dieter said.