Arizona Supreme Court will not extend death warrant for Aaron Gunches

The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled to deny a motion that is aimed at extending a death warrant issued for Aaron Gunches.

In an order, the court rejected setting a May 1 execution date for prisoner Aaron Gunches for his murder conviction in the 2002 killing of Ted Price near the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. The execution was originally scheduled for Thursday.

Hobbs, who has ordered a review of Arizona’s death penalty protocols due to the state’s history of mismanaging executions, had vowed not to enforce any death sentences until there’s confidence the state can enforce the death penalty without violating the law.

According to the ruling, which was issued on Apr. 5, the motion was filed by Ted Price's sister, Karen Price, along with Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell. The motion asks the Arizona Supreme Court to extend the date of execution by 25 days, to May 1, 2023, but the motion was denied, without prejudice. The ruling did not state a reason as to why the motion was denied.

The ruling states that three state Supreme Court justices - John R. Lopez IV, James P. Beene, and William G. Montgomery (also known as Bill Montgomery) - were recused from the case. The ruling did not state the reasons behind the recusals.

In late March, the state Supreme Court rejected a request from Price’s sister, Karen Price, to order Hobbs to carry out the execution. The court concluded Hobbs wasn’t required to do so.

Price’s sister and his daughter, Brittany Kay, have since filed a lawsuit that seeks to force Hobbs to execute Gunches.

Some requirements for carrying out executions under the state’s death penalty protocol have not been met in Gunches’ case.

The corrections Department said the warrant of execution issued by the state Supreme Court wasn’t read to Gunches, and Gunches wasn’t moved to a special "death watch" cell where he would be monitored around the clock and remain until his execution.

It is unclear when a new execution date will be set. 

ACLU issues statement

The ACLU of Arizona issued a statement in response to the state Supreme Court's ruling. The statement from ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Jared Keenan reads:

"The governor is acting well within her executive authority to pause executions pending an independent review. The court has issued a decision that respects the separation of powers and provides clarity for Arizonans moving forward in the state’s administration of the death penalty. 

Administering the death penalty is one of the most serious acts the government undertakes. The public should have information about its administration and, importantly, answers about when things go horribly wrong. That’s what the execution pause allows — it gives us answers, which is what we are owed from our government. 

A pause on all executions is the reasonable and responsible thing to do to establish honesty and transparency about our state’s execution protocols."

Maricopa County judge schedules oral argument in case related to Gunches' execution

Meanwhile, the legal battle over Gunches' execution remains ongoing, with a Maricopa County Superior Court judge scheduling oral arguments on June 23 for a case connected to Gunches' execution.

Superior Court Judge Frank Moskowitz agreed to let attorneys brief their arguments in the coming weeks, but he also said he’s not sure what he has the power to do — since the Arizona Supreme Court order authorizing the execution of Aaron Gunches in the 2002 killing of Ted Price expired late Thursday night.

"What can I do? There is no warrant of execution to do anything with," Moskowitz said, noting he can’t issue or extend such a court order. The judge scheduled a June 23 hearing for lawyers to make their arguments.

Hobbs — who has ordered a review of Arizona’s death penalty protocols because of the state’s history of mismanaged executions — had vowed to not carry out any death sentences until there’s confidence the state can do so without violating the law.

The family of the victims allege that Gov. Hobb's refusal to execute Gunches amounts to a denial of their constitutional rights as victims.

"The Arizona Supreme Court issued a Warrant of Execution, and then the next day, the Governor said 'I am not going to do it. It’s not going to happen,' and then, of course our contention is that in doing so, [it] violates the law. It also causes more delay, and causing more delay that violates the victim’s constitutional rights to a prompt and final conclusion," said attorney Ryan Green.

Judge Moskowitz was reportedly very close to throw out the case following the Apr. 5 ruling, but instead, he has granted more time to hear evidence.

"I will tell you part of me says there’s nothing I can do here, and there’s part of me that says I should just dismiss this case now, but there’s also part of me that says this is a pretty serious matter," said Judge Moskowitz. "It involves a lot of constitutional issues, and I don’t want to do that. I want to make sure that if I do, that I’ve given everyone a chance to be heard on it."

During the legal proceedings on Apr. 6, Gunches appeared in court via telephone, and spoke briefly. He siad he wants the execution to happen sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, the execution warrant for Gunches is set to expire at the stroke of midnight on April 7, which left Jusge Moskowitz in a rather tricky situation.

"The claim that they have presented to this court is that there should be an execution, and it’s simply moot once the warrant goes away tonight," said attorney Alexander Samuels.

The plaintiff's briefs are due by April 18.

Gunches' execution subject of legal battle and controversy

We have been reporting on the legal battle surrounding the death warrant that was issued for Gunches.

Gunches had originally filed his motion for a death warrant in November 2022, but later sought to withdraw the request, arguing that he did not know of Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes' intentions of pausing executions in Arizona.

In December that same year, the Arizona Attorney General's Office requested the state's Supreme Court to issue a warrant of execution for Gunches. At the time, Mayes had yet to take office as the state's AG.

As mentioned above, Gov. Hobbs has vowed not to carry out Gunches' execution warrant, citing a review that she has ordered of death penalty protocols due to Arizona’s history of mismanaging executions. She said executions will not be carried out until Arizonans can be confident the state isn’t violating the law.

Lawyers for Hobbs have said the state lacks staff with expertise to carry out an execution, was unable to find an IV team to carry out the lethal injection and doesn’t currently have a contract for a pharmacist to compound the pentobarbital needed for an execution. They also said a top corrections leadership position that’s critical to planning executions remains unfilled.

Gov. Hobbs' decision on Gunches' execution has sparked criticism from Price.

"Not only has our family been victimized by inmate Gunches and the emotional aftermath of Ted’s murder, we are now being victimized by the governor’s failure to recognize and uphold our constitutional rights to justice and finality," Price said.

"I certainly understand the need for justice for the Price family. We are focused on insuring that we can carry out this execution if required to. Right now we have serious concerns about our ability to do that," Gov. Hobbs said.

Lawyers for Karen Price have argued that Gov. Hobbs did not have a legal authority to disregard the death warrant, but the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that state law didn't require Hobbs to proceed with the planned execution, even though it wasn't officially called off.

Gunches' execution, if and when it proceeds, will come after the state executed Clarence Dixon, Frank Atwood, and Murray Hooper with a span of six months in 2022.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.