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Gov. Hobbs, AG Mayes pause executions pending independent review

Arizona is pausing putting people to death.

Attorney General Kris Mayes on Friday withdrew the state's legal request for the Arizona Supreme Court to issue a warrant allowing the execution of Aaron Gunches, convicted in the 2002 death of Ted Price, his girlfriend's ex-husband. More to the point, Mayes told the justices she won't be seeking any new execution warrants until she gets the findings from a new Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner being named by Gov. Katie Hobbs.

That commissioner is tasked with conducting a full review of the process, ranging from how and where the state gets its execution chemicals to transparency and media access and the procedures and protocols used by the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry used to put condemned inmates to death, including the training of those prison officials involved.

Arizona resumed executions last year after an eight-year pause following the botched procedure when Joseph Wood was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours. Three inmates were put to death in 2022.

Hobbs said the process has remained plagued by questions.

"Recent executions have been embroiled in controversy," she said. There were reports that prison employees had repeated problems in placing the intravenous line into the veins of the condemned men.

"The death penalty is a controversial issue to begin with," the governor continued. "We just want to make sure the practices are sound and that we don't end up with botched executions like we've seen recently."

Hobbs made it clear none of this means the state will never resume executions of the 107 men and three women on "death row." A total of 21 have exhausted their appeals.

"That is not up to me," she said. "It is up to the attorney general."

But Mayes, in legal filings Friday with the Supreme Court, said there will be none for the time being.

"There is a heightened need to ensure any capital sentence is carried out constitutionally, legally, humanely, and with transparency," the court papers state. "To that end, no further warrants of execution will be sought at this time."

In fact, the governor has no role at all in deciding who does or does not get executed.

It is solely up to the attorney general to ask the Arizona Supreme Court for the necessary warrant to execute someone once all appeals have been exhausted.

And unlike some states, the governor here cannot unilaterally pardon someone or commute a sentence without first getting a recommendation to do so from the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency.

In seeking a review, Hobbs acknowledged she is examining only a portion of the process, covering the time from when a person is sentenced to death to when the penalty is carried out.

Not part of the study is the larger question of whether the death penalty is imposed fairly. That includes differences in sentences depending on things like the race of the defendant and the financial ability to hire the best available counsel.

Of the 110 inmates who have been sentenced to death, 62 are classified as Caucasian, 22 Mexican Americans, 17 Black inmates, with four who are Native American, three Asians and two who are simply listed as "other."

"That's certainly a conversation worth having," Hobbs said, saying it goes beyond the scope of the order she issued Friday. But the governor said she is "certainly would be willing to entertain further action on the broader issue of the whole process."

And she repeatedly refused to divulge her own beliefs on the death penalty, saying they are not relevant.

"We just want to review the practices and make sure that if we are conducting executions that they're done as humanely and transparently and as consistently with the law as possible," Hobbs said.