An Arizona death-row inmate is asking the state Supreme Court to block his execution Wednesday so a lower court can consider whether the inmate’s rights to a fair clemency hearing have been violated.
Attorneys for inmate Samuel Villegas Lopez cited a trial judge’s ruling Monday that Lopez may not have received a fair shot at a clemency hearing because of questions of whether some members of the state clemency board received training or met qualifications to serve.
The members in question were recently appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer.
Lopez “is entitled to develop those claims and obtain meaningful resolution of them before the state of Arizona executes him,” two of the inmates’ attorneys said in their motion filed Monday night. A judge scheduled a July hearing on whether three new members need the training before hearing clemency cases and whether one had met qualifications before being appointed.
The clemency board has five members.
Lopez is scheduled to be executed at a state prison in Florence for the 1986 murder of Estefana Holmes. The Phoenix woman was raped, robbed and stabbed in what authorities described as a “terrible and prolonged struggle.”
Lopez would be the fourth person executed by Arizona this year.
Meanwhile, two three-judge panels of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Tuesday each denied an appeal filed on behalf of Lopez. One challenged the state’s execution procedures, and the second argued that he was denied effective legal representation.
In state court, Judge Joseph Kreamer of Maricopa County Superior Court said Monday that he only had authority to rule on whether there were grounds to schedule the July hearing — not to postpone the execution scheduled by the state high court.
Kreamer said the main issue for that hearing is whether the three new board members needed to complete four weeks of required training before hearing clemency requests. Kreamer said Lopez has a strong chance of winning on that issue and on whether another new member demonstrated interest in the corrections process, a qualification required under state law.
The judge’s decision to order the July hearing stems from a lawsuit filed last week by Lopez’s lawyers, who argued the state’s clemency process is flawed. They claimed that the board’s makeup was revamped to avoid having clemency recommendations in high-profile cases land on the desk of Brewer, and asked that the clemency board be reconstituted.
Earlier that week, a Lopez lawyer challenged the validity of a hearing for his client and then walked out.
Brewer’s spokesman has said the governor did not reappoint several board members whose terms had expired because she wanted “fresh insight and fresh blood” on the board.
Assistant Attorney General Kent Cattani said after Monday’s hearing the state would oppose the stay request. Cattani and a lawyer representing individual state officials said any violations of the state’s clemency processes are relatively minor and not serious enough to postpone an execution.
Solicitor General David Cole told Kreamer that state law doesn’t specify that the required training has to take place before board members start hearing cases.
The judge said to think otherwise would negate the purpose of the training requirement.