State won’t carry out execution after warrant issued 

State won’t carry out execution after warrant issued 

Hobbs, death row, lethal injection, Gunches
Arizona is not going to execute the state’s only inmate on death row even after the Arizona Supreme Court issued a death warrant in the case, Gov. Katie Hobbs said on Friday.

Arizona won’t execute the state’s only inmate on death row even after the Arizona Supreme Court issued a death warrant in the case, Gov. Katie Hobbs said on Friday. 

“(T)he State and (Arizona Department of Corrections) does not intend to proceed with an execution on April 6,” the governor wrote in an emailed statement on March 3, referring to the initially scheduled date of the execution. The death warrant was issued on March 2. 

The move is an apparent reprieve for Aaron Gunches, whose case has taken several turns, including Gunches himself requesting a warrant for his execution – only to reverse course months later. And it’s the latest indication of how Arizona will deal with capital punishment under Hobbs, who as a lawmaker sought to repeal the state’s death penalty law. 

Hobbs, Gunches, death row, lethal injection
Katie Hobbs speaks at a victory rally after learning she was elected governor on Nov. 15, 2022 in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

“The Court’s decision order and warrant make clear… that the warrant authorizes an execution and does not require it,” the governor said in the statement. “This is consistent with the law and separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches on this most serious exercise of the power of the State.” 

The announcement came after Attorney General Kris Mayes, a Democrat, sought to withdraw an earlier motion filed by her predecessor in the AG’s office seeking a death warrant. Mayes’ motion to withdraw was announced at the same time that Hobbs created a new commission to review Arizona’s death penalty processes following a series of missteps that she said, “have resulted in serious questions about ADCRR’s execution protocols and lack of transparency.”    

The effort to seek a death warrant for Gunches came in the final months of former Gov. Doug Ducey’s term in the governor’s office and during former Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s administration. Brnovich had publicized his effort to resume executions last year for the first time since 2014. The two men, both Republicans, handed off the keys to their offices to Democrats earlier this year. 

Hobbs hasn’t said she’s putting an end to the death penalty in Arizona but reiterated on Friday that the state won’t resume executions until the review she commissioned is complete. 

“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,” Hobbs said.  

The review is being led by David Duncan, a former federal judge who has some experience with the Arizona Department of Corrections. In 2018, he fined the department $1.4 million for failing to comply with court orders requiring the department meet minimum healthcare standards for inmates in its care. 

Josselyn Berry, a spokeswoman for the governor, said on Friday that legal staff in the governor’s office and the Attorney General’s office had conferred about the decision not to pursue execution after the warrant. 

Speaking to reporters after an unrelated event on Friday morning, Hobbs declined to offer any additional reaction to the court’s decision to issue the death warrant. 

Republican attorney Kory Langhofer said he agrees with the governor’s interpretation of the law. 

“Death warrants authorize execution, but they aren’t an injunction requiring [ADCRR] to execute someone,” he said in a text message. “Just like a search warrant, it’s permission, not a directive.” 

But he said he disagrees with the governor’s decision, saying it amounts to making a policy decision outside of the legislative process. 

“This is an unsubtle prelude to commutation of all death sentences in Arizona,” Langhofer said. “It’s time to offer our sympathies to all families of Arizona murder victims who will not see justice on this earth.” 

Over the course of several terms in the Arizona Legislature, Hobbs co-sponsored multiple bills that would have repealed the state’s death penalty. None made it into law. As governor, she has insisted that her move to review Arizona’s capital punishment process is about making sure the state follows the law, not about her own views. 

“I don’t think that my personal opinion matters in this issue,” she said in January after announcing the review. 

In issuing the death warrant on Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court Justices argued that they didn’t have any choice in the matter. Since Gunches had exhausted his appeals, they wrote, the court had no choice but to proceed by issuing the death warrant. 

“By moving for issuance of the warrant in December, the State implicitly avowed it could carry out the sentence in compliance with state and federal law,” Chief Justice Robert Brutinel wrote.  

Brutinel also said that Hobbs’ review of the death penalty “itself does not demonstrate the State’s inability to lawfully carry out the execution.” 

Gunches was convicted of murder in 2008 for the 2002 killing of his girlfriend’s ex-husband. 

Kiera Riley and Wayne Schutsky contributed to this report.