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Delaying executions violates Arizona law, Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell says

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes says her office will begin pursuing executions of prisoners on death row early next year. The move comes after a two-year pause of the practice in our state since Gov. Katie Hobbs took office.

In early 2023, Hobbs and Mayes — both Democrats — said they wouldn’t pursue executions until a review of the process was completed, citing “a history of mismanaged executions that have resulted in serious concerns.” Hobbs established a Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner, retired judge David Duncan, and Mayes withdrew a motion for the state’s only pending death warrant.

In 2014, Joseph Wood was executed by lethal injection at the Florence State Prison in what became the longest execution in U.S. history. It took almost two hours for him to die after receiving a new cocktail of drugs.

In 2022, former governor Doug Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich resumed executions, putting three men to death. Reports at the time said execution team members struggled to insert IV lines in each case.

The news that Mayes intends to start executions again next year came in a letter to Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell. Mitchell says the state is well prepared to carry out executions today. She’s been critical of Hobbs and Mayes for pausing them. The Show spoke with her more about her reaction to the potential change in policy and what’s next.

The Show also reached out to Attorney General Kris Mayes to talk about her move to reinstate the death penalty next year. She declined to come on The Show to talk about it. In response to Mitchell’s comments about the timeline of the Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner, the Governor’s Office told The Show “the judge’s contract includes a presumptive timeline of two years— we’ll reach the end of that timeline next year."

Full interview

RACHEL MITCHELL: Yeah, I was very surprised. I have been pushing for the executions to take place. The victims are waiting for it, and there has been this delay — that really is not authorized by Arizona law — waiting for this former judge to do a review.

The review was supposed to have been completed by December of 2023. And now here we’re saying, “Well, perhaps in the first quarter of 2025.” And that's just not acceptable to the victims.

LAUREN GILGER: So the governor, the attorney general, decided to pause executions in our state, shortly after they took office, while this review took place. And it was kind of because there were concerns about botched executions, about the availability of the drugs needed to carry them out. Do you share those concerns at all?

MITCHELL: I do not. I I think that to continue to use that phrase — “botched executions” — is really, at this point, a false narrative. There was a situation that happened in 2014. Because of that situation, there was a hiatus of about eight years taken while the process for execution was litigated thoroughly in federal court. A new protocol was established, and that protocol was used in the three executions that took place in 2022.

And I should say that I attended the last of those three executions, and it went off without a hitch. The only delay that there was was for the medical person to get, as he described it, a smaller needle so it would hurt less. So there were no botched executions under our current protocols.

GILGER: So there were reports after those executions in 2022 that the execution team sort of struggled to insert the IV lines. It was a hard time finding a vein., right? It sounds like you are confident that these can be carried out in accordance with the law in Arizona today.

MITCHELL: Absolutely. I watched them insert the IVs. And in the individual that I saw, Mr. (Murray) Hooper being executed, there was no sign of discomfort whatsoever as the medical team did what they had to do.

GILGER: What about getting the drugs needed to do this? This has been a challenge for many states in recent years.

MITCHELL: Yes. And obviously there’s state law that protects the source of those drugs and certain aspects surrounding that. But both the attorney general, (Mark) Brnovich, as well as (Arizona Department of Corrections) Director (Ryan) Thornhill have said that they do have the drugs, they do have the compounding pharmacist necessary and that they are able to carry out an execution under the current protocol.

GILGER: If Attorney General Mayes does go forward with this and carries out death penalty requests next year, how many death penalty cases do you have currently open?

MITCHELL: My understanding is that there are close to about 30 that have exhausted their appeals in both federal and state court. Obviously that number changes as time goes on, and then some of those have to do with other counties as well.

GILGER: Tell us about your decision making process when it comes to death penalty cases. How do you decide to pursue something this serious in a case, and when do you decide not to?

MITCHELL: You know, this is the most important thing, most serious thing that I do as county attorney. So I take it extremely seriously. What I do is I review all first-degree murder cases that come into this office where we charge, that are committed by those who are 18 and up — because obviously under 18, they are not eligible for the death penalty.

They are looked at by a committee of senior attorneys who advise me. But the ultimate decision is mine. And what I’m looking at is a myriad of factors. As somebody who looks at hundreds of first-degree murder cases, I think I can pick out very easily the worst of the worst, which is what I’m looking for. I think that’s what the death penalty was intended for.

I’m also looking at the strength of the evidence, because I know that it’s going to take a long time to get from the sentencing to the execution, and we want evidence that’s going to stand the test of time, if you will. So that’s another thing I’m looking at.

I’m looking at how other codefendants, if there are codefendants, were treated. I’m looking at this particular person’s involvement and the degree of an involvement, if there were codefendants. So there are a lot of factors that I’m looking at. I look at any mitigation provided by the defense before I make my decision. I look at aggravating factors as well.

GILGER: So I want to talk a little bit about the back and forth between your office and the attorney general that kind of came to light with this letter that was released about the death penalty here. Tell us a little bit about how this came to be. Have you been in negotiations with the Attorney General’s Office over the last 17-18 months to try to get that position changed, try to get that review of executions completed?

MITCHELL: Well, I wouldn’t say we’ve been in negotiations. I would say we’ve been in discussions where I have had victims coming to this office who are very disappointed in the delay and frankly stunned by it. They expected a certain process, but they did not expect the attorney general and the governor to stray outside of the legal process to delay it even further.

And so I’ve been conveying that to the attorney general. I’ve been talking to Director Thornhill and expressing my desire that this go as quickly as possible so that these victims can receive justice. And so when this letter came that now sets a further target of perhaps the first quarter of next year. Obviously, I was stunned and the victims were dismayed as well.

GILGER: Before I let you go, let me ask you about another major issue facing the state right now, which is abortion. You have been critical of the governor’s move to give the authority to prosecute abortion to Attorney General Mayes. you haven’t challenged it officially. Are you planning to do that?

MITCHELL: I would be critical anytime the governor tries to strip jurisdiction from duly elected prosecutors. So for me, that was more an issue as to the rule of law and the governor exceeding her authority.

The reason nothing came of that in the abortion area is because there were no cases, as there have been no cases. There hasn’t been a single case referred to any prosecutor in the state since the Dobbs decision came down two years ago. And so, until that happens, there doesn’t seem to be a need to pursue that.

GILGER: You are also a candidate for the county attorney’s office, we should say, in an election cycle right now. I would love to know what you would like to see the law on abortion look like in Arizona. In the future, we are kind of dealing with a 15-week abortion ban now, potentially a different referendum or two on the ballot for voters to decide in November.

MITCHELL: I take my position very seriously and understand that I am not a lawmaker. I am not the Legislature, nor am I the entire body of voters if they decide to do this by referendum or initiative. So I try to stay in my lane there as the county attorney.

So the one thing that I think that my lane has been commenting on this on is in the area of rape and molestation or incest. As you know, I am a career prosecutor, and I’m actually a career sex crimes prosecutor. I have seen victims get pregnant through being raped or through being molested, and I have been very clear that I think that those should be exceptions to the law on abortion.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.