Arizona executions paused: Commissioner to review state's death penalty process

Executions in Arizona have been put on hold after Gov. Katie Hobbs issued an executive order that she says will improve and provide more transparency into the state's death penalty process.

The order states that the Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner will review the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, & Reentry lethal injection drug and gas chamber chemical procurement process, as well as execution protocols, and staffing.

Once the review is complete, the commissioner will issue a final report, which includes recommendations on how to improve the process.

"With the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and  Reentry now under new leadership, it’s time to address the fact that this is a system that needs better oversight on numerous fronts," Hobbs said in a news release. "Arizona has a history of mismanaged executions that have resulted in serious questions and concerns about ADCRR’s execution protocols and lack of transparency. I’m confident that under Director Thornell, ADCRR will take this executive action seriously."

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes announced her office "will pause all requests for warrants of execution while the review process is pending." Mayes also said she filed a motion to withdraw the warrant of execution for Aaron Gunches, who had asked the state Supreme Court to issue a death warrant for him before filing a motion to withdraw his request.

"My office will also pause all requests for warrants of execution while the review process is pending," Mayes tweeted. "If executions are carried out at any point in the future, I am committed to providing as much transparency into the execution process as the law allows."

Arizona, which currently has 110 prisoners on death row, carried out three executions last year after a nearly eight-year hiatus that was brought on by criticism that a 2014 execution was botched and because of difficulties obtaining execution drugs.

In 2014, Joseph Wood was injected with 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours, leading the death-row prisoner to snort repeatedly and gasp more than 600 times before he died. His lawyers said the execution was botched.

In the past, Arizona and other state had struggled to buy execution drugs after U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products in lethal injections.

In July 2015, the state tried to import sodium thiopental, which had been used to carry out executions but was no longer manufactured by companies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The state never received the shipment because federal agents stopped it at the Phoenix airport, and the state lost an administrative challenge to the seizure.

Arizona is the only state to currently have a working gas chamber.

The last lethal gas execution in the United States was carried out in Arizona more than two decades ago. The state refurbished its gas chamber in late 2020. Corrections officials had declined to say why they restarted the gas chamber.

All three prisoners executed in Arizona last year declined lethal gas, leading them to be put to death by injection, the default execution method.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.