Executions could resume next year, AG says

Executions could resume next year, AG says
Executions could resume next year, AG says

Gov. Katie Hobbs on executions in Arizona, border issues and budget

Gov. Katie Hobbs holds a news conference on Jan. 20, 2023, on the state of executions in Arizona, border issues and budget discussions.

Joe Rondone/The Republic

Attorney General Kris Mayes said this week his office would begin pursuing executions in cases early next year, potentially bringing to an end a two-year pause on capital punishment in Arizona.

Executions have been on hold since early 2023, when Mayes and Gov. Katie Hobbs, both Democrats, stopped the state from carrying out the death penalty and launched a review of procedures. Resuming them could happen in less than a year, according to a letter from Mayes’ office obtained by The Arizona Republic.

The letter was sent to Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell, a Republican, on May 16 with the subject line “Death penalty.” It came after what Mayes described as an “ongoing dialogue we have had about the death penalty over the last 17 months.”

Mayes and Mitchell sparred publicly last year after the duo of Democrats halted all executions.

That public tension had abated until this week, when Mayes included a criticism of Mitchell’s office in a footnote to the letter. Mitchell, who is seeking reelection this year, responded with his own sharply worded criticism of her.

Richie Taylor, a spokesperson for Mayes, said the letter came after months of ongoing conversations between their offices about the death penalty.

“The Attorney General intended her letter to be private correspondence,” Taylor said. “Apparently, County Attorney Mitchell felt otherwise.”

The letters, which are a public record, were provided by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

Resuming executions in 2025

Shortly after taking office last year, Hobbs announced the establishment of a Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner, and Mayes withdrew a motion for the only pending death warrant. Both said they would await the results of a report to be produced by the commissioner, retired Magistrate Judge David Duncan, before seeking any further death warrants.

A spokesperson for Hobbs was not immediately available for comment.

Mayes said in her letter she anticipated Duncan’s independent review of the death penalty process was drawing to a close.

“I intend to begin seeking warrants no later than the first quarter of 2025, so long as (the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry) is capable of carrying out a lawful execution at that time,” Mayes wrote. “By then, I anticipate that Judge Duncan will have completed his independent review and that ADCRR will have had sufficient time to make any appropriate improvements to their procedures for carrying out the death penalty.”

At the time, Hobbs cited “a history of mismanaged executions that have resulted in serious questions and concerns about ADCRR’s execution protocols and lack of transparency” as a reason for the pause. Mayes echoed the concern, saying executions should be “transparent, accountable, and carried out in a manner faithful to our constitution and the rule of law.”

Former Gov. Doug Ducey and former Attorney General Mark Brnovich, both Republicans, resumed executions in Arizona in 2022, carrying out the lethal injections of death row prisoners Clarence Dixon, Frank Atwood, and Murray Hooper. Execution team members struggled to insert IV lines during the lethal injection process for all three men.

There are 112 people on Arizona’s death row.

Letters reignite division between Mayes, Mitchell

The May 16 letter signed by Mayes serves to clarify her position on capital cases, noting her deputies are currently defending over 100 death sentences in court. Mayes also cited her office’s work arguing Thornell v. Jones at the United States Supreme Court, in which her office asked the nation’s top court to reinstate a death sentence.

“As the chief law enforcement officer of the State, it is my intent to enforce Arizona law, whether that be through the defense of legally imposed death sentences on appeal or the seeking of warrants in a timely manner once a defendant has exhausted his appeals and ADCRR is prepared to carry out the warrant lawfully,” Mayes wrote.

She ended the two-page letter offering to discuss other issues with Mitchell, including “women’s access to reproductive health care and the importance of equal treatment under the law, regardless of a defendant’s wealth, prominence, or political connections.”

“Attorney General Mayes continues to hear from medical providers that the County Attorney’s silence on whether she will ever bring charges against a doctor for providing an abortion has chilled their ability to provide life-saving care for their pregnant patients,” Taylor said. “The Attorney General also remains concerned about the handling of the Charles Ryan matter, as do the victims in this case, the law enforcement officers who believe Mr. Ryan received preferential treatment.”

Mayes’ letter to Mitchell cites a footnote, which links to an Arizona Republic story, and says: “On that front, I have concerns about your Office’s recent prosecution of former ADCRR Director Charles Ryan.”

Mitchell, in a three-page response of his own on Friday, slammed Mayes, largely over that footnote. She also reaffirmed Mayes and Hobbs could not unilaterally suspend the death penalty and condemned the duo for “delay tactics.”

“Your promise that you will start to do your job in 2025 is hollow given that former Judge Duncan’s review was supposed to be finished in December 2023,” Mitchell wrote.

At his confirmation hearing in June 2023, Department of Corrections Director Ryan Thornell said the agency had been prepared since May 5 of that year to carry out an execution should a warrant for one be issued. The only remaining matter would be the compounding of the execution drugs because they have a limited shelf life, he said at the time.

Mitchell suggested that by including other topics in his letter, Mayes was trying to make a political impact. The county prosecutor wrote that Mayes had “never worked as a prosecutor, but speaking as someone who has spent 32 years working as a prosecutor, I am on solid ground to inform you that prosecutors don’t run from bullies.”

She repeatedly defended her office’s investigation of Ryan, who carried out an armed, drunken, hourslong standoff at his Tempe home in 2022. Mitchell’s office offered Ryan a plea deal that avoided prison time, which was criticized as favoritism by some of the Tempe police detectives working the case.

Mitchell wrote that Mayes had no jurisdiction over the Ryan case.

“If you had a desire to know more, you needed only to speak with your chief criminal deputy — who worked at MCAO at the time — who participated in the review and recommendation process,” Mitchell wrote of Mayes’ deputy, Nick Klingerman. Mitchell declined to comment about the letters on Friday.

“What is most disappointing about your letter is not that you disagree with the charging or outcome of the matter, even if your opinions are only informed by media reports,” Mitchell wrote.

“What is most disappointing is that the last paragraph of your letter implies (if not directly accuses) the experienced, dedicated prosecutors and public servants of this office of misfeasance or utterly inappropriate and unethical behavior without a shred of evidence to suggest the same — because there is none.”

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Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at [email protected] or 480-416-5669.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 812-243-5582. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter: @JimmyJenkins.

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