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Arizona death-row inmate’s lawsuit heads to court

This undated photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections shows death-row inmate Samuel Villegas Lopez. Lopez's attorneys are fighting his upcoming execution, arguing in one filing Tuesday, May 1, 2012 that three newly appointed clemency board members are unprepared to consider his arguments for mercy and in another that the state Department of Corrections is violating his constitutional rights. (AP Photo/Arizona Department of Corrections)

Lawyers for an Arizona death-row inmate plan to argue the state’s clemency process is flawed as they make last-minute bids to stop his execution.

Attorneys for Samuel Villegas Lopez contend the execution should be delayed so new members of the state’s clemency board can be appointed. They are set to make their case Monday in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Separate proceedings will be held Monday before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, where lawyers for Lopez will challenge the state’s execution procedures and contend he was denied effective legal representation.

Lopez is scheduled to be executed Wednesday at a state prison in Florence for the 1986 murder of 59-year-old Estefana Holmes. The Phoenix woman was raped, robbed and stabbed in what court papers described as a “terrible and prolonged struggle.”

Lopez would be the fourth person executed by Arizona this year.

His lawyers say Lopez deserves clemency because the trial judge was never told he had brain damage and a difficult childhood.

The Board of Executive Clemency took no action during a May 7 hearing for Lopez when a lawyer for the inmate walked out after challenging the validity of the proceeding.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of Lopez two days later called the hearing a sham resulting from a revamping of the board’s makeup to avoid having clemency recommendations in high-profile cases land on the desk of Gov. Jan Brewer.

The lawsuit asked Superior Court Judge Joseph Kraemer to rule that Brewer’s recent appointments of three of the five members of the board were invalid. The suit cited alleged open meeting law violations by a committee that screen applicants.

“The three board members, rendered null and void by state statute, were equivalent to three empty chairs in the room,” Lopez’s attorneys wrote in a filing in the case.

As a result, Lopez has been denied his due-process right to have the board consider recommending that Brewer commute his death sentence to life in prison or grant him a reprieve delaying the execution, the lawsuit contends.

In court papers filed on behalf of Brewer and other state officials, state Solicitor General David Cole said clemency proceedings are legally a “matter of grace” that only entitle inmates to minimal due process.

On behalf of the state, Attorney General Kent Cattani also urged Kreamer to reject Lopez’s requests and said the inmate’s lawyers had an opportunity to present his case but chose not to do so.

Clemency is a political process decided by elected officials that is not subject to judicial review, Cattani said.


  1. The state’s Clemency Board has been politicized and is now non-functioning. This is what is going on in dictatorships. Clemency should NOT be a political process. Tired of decades of “rubber-stamping” cases that end up being the Clemency Boards problem. One that the Governor and those who “control” the state want to slam the lid on.

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