Mohave County
July 2024
Volume 24 Issue 5

Jul 2024 | Journal, July 2024 | 0 comments

Dispute over execution of Aaron Gunches highlights Arizona’s death penalty challenges

Journal, July 2024 | 0 comments

July 2024

NATION — Aaron Brian Gunches, convicted of an execution-style murder in 2002, has become the focal point of a legal and political battle in Arizona. The dispute pits Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell against Attorney General Kris Mayes over the authority to issue death warrants, amidst a broader review of the state’s execution protocols.
Gunches was convicted of murdering Ted Price on the Salt River Reservation in 2002. He shot Price three times in the chest and once in the back of the head. Gunches was arrested a month later after a confrontation with an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer, during which he shot the officer twice. Bullets from that incident linked Gunches to Price’s murder.
In 2008, Gunches pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. A procedural error led to a re-sentencing in 2013, but the death sentence was upheld.
In November 2022, Gunches requested the Arizona Supreme Court issue a death warrant, expressing a desire to provide closure for the victim’s family. Then-Attorney General Mark Brnovich agreed, and the court issued the warrant in December 2022.
The case took an unexpected turn when Kris Mayes became Attorney General in January 2023. Mayes moved to withdraw the execution request, citing concerns over Arizona’s execution protocols. Despite this motion, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the warrant in March 2023.
This decision sparked a significant conflict between state officials. Governor Katie Hobbs and AG Mayes halted executions in January 2023 to conduct a thorough review of the state’s execution protocols. They emphasized the need for this review, expected to be completed by early 2025, to ensure that future executions are carried out humanely and lawfully.
However, Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell has aggressively pushed to resume executions. In an unprecedented move, Mitchell attempted to bypass the Attorney General’s authority by seeking a death warrant directly from the Arizona Supreme Court. Mitchell argues that this action is necessary to uphold victims’ rights to a prompt conclusion of the case.
AG Mayes responded strongly to Mitchell’s actions. “Even though she knows what she is doing has no legal merit, County Attorney Mitchell seeks to circumvent the authority of the Attorney General’s office and to use victims as pawns for her own political gain,” Mayes stated. She added, “I will vigorously defend the authority of this office – and will not stand by as the Maricopa County Attorney attempts to create chaos to save her political career.”
Mitchell defended her actions, stating, “I am not willing to wait any longer… I’ve asked the Supreme Court to set a briefing in anticipation of our motion to the court to issue a warrant of execution.”
This conflict has drawn attention to the broader issues surrounding Arizona’s death penalty procedures. The state has faced criticism for past executions, notably the problematic execution of Joseph Wood in 2014, which took nearly two hours and required 15 doses of lethal injection drugs.
The dispute has also brought attention to the rights and experiences of victims’ families. Karen Price, the sister of Ted Price, has been vocal in demanding that the execution be carried out. “The criminal justice system is revictimizing us by continuing to let this man live,” Price said. She argues that the delays violate victims’ constitutional rights to a timely resolution of cases.
Governor Katie Hobbs has emphasized the need for a thorough review. “Arizona has a history of problematic executions that have been the result of faulty drugs, lying pharmacists, and botched proceedings,” Hobbs stated. “We need to take a comprehensive look at how the death penalty is implemented in Arizona.”
Legal experts have weighed in on the unprecedented nature of Mitchell’s actions. Dale Baich, a former federal public defender, noted, “There is no statutory authority for a county attorney to file a motion for a warrant of execution… Only the attorney general can do that.”
The ongoing review of execution protocols, ordered by Governor Hobbs, aims to address these concerns. The review is examining the state’s lethal injection procedures, the procurement and testing of drugs, transparency and media access, and staff training and experience.
AG Mayes has stated that her office will not seek further execution warrants until this review is complete. “I have insisted the independent review be finished in a timely manner so that when a warrant is ultimately issued by my office, victims will have certainty that it will be carried out,” Mayes explained.
This case has broader implications for Arizona’s 110 death row inmates and future execution practices in the state. It raises questions about the balance between justice for victims and ensuring that executions are carried out legally and humanely.
The resolution of these disputes will likely shape the future of capital punishment in Arizona. It may lead to clearer definitions of the legal boundaries between the Attorney General’s and County Attorney’s authorities in death penalty cases.
As the state grapples with these issues, the Gunches case remains a stark example of the complex legal, ethical, and procedural challenges surrounding the death penalty in Arizona. The ongoing debate reflects broader national discussions about the administration of capital punishment and the rights of both victims and the accused.
As Arizona continues to navigate these challenging waters, all eyes remain on the courts, the Attorney General’s office, and the Governor’s office for further developments. The resolution of the Gunches case may well become a defining moment in Arizona’s approach to the death penalty for years to come.
— Jeremy Webb

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