By Tyler Mebane.
Arizona is one of the 27 states that currently retains the death penalty as an option for criminal punishment. In January of 2023, Governor Hobbs placed a hold on executions in the state pending a review of the state’s procedures for executions. A few months later, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a warrant of execution for Aaron Guches. After Governor Hobbs declined to move forward with the execution, the sister of the man murdered by Mr. Guches sued to attempt to move the execution forward, resulting in the case Price v. Hobbs.
Arizona’s Modern Death Penalty History
Arizona’s recent history of pauses on executions began in 2014, when the execution of Joseph Wood by lethal injection took nearly two hours to complete. Outrage at the cruelty of this procedure, plus a shortage of the drugs used, led to an eight-year gap with no executions in the state of Arizona. This gap ended in 2022 with the executions of Clarence Dixon, Frank Atwood, and Murray Hooper. These three executions were botched as well, prompting further questions about Arizona’s procedures and whether they were so harsh as to violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In response to the botched 2022 executions, Governor Hobbs appointed a Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner (DPIRC) to review the procedures for executions in Arizona. The Commissioner would report back with advice on how to improve the transparency and effectiveness of the procedure. Until then, Governor Hobbs instituted a moratorium on moving forward with any executions in Arizona.
Governor Hobbs’s stance was tested in the matter of Aaron Gunches, a current death row inmate. Gunches was imprisoned and sentenced to death for the murder of Ted Price, the ex-husband of Gunches’s then-girlfriend. Mark Brnovich, the Arizona Attorney General under Governor Ducey, requested a death warrant for Gunches in November of 2022. Governor Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes attempted to withdraw the execution request, but the Arizona Supreme Court found that it was required to move forward and issued a warrant of execution for Mr. Gunches. Despite the warrant, Governor Hobbs stated that she would not proceed with the execution while the moratorium allowing DPIRC time to review Arizona’s execution procedures remained in effect.
Suit by Victim’s Family
Governor Hobbs’s decision not to move forward with the warrant for execution raised the constitutional question of whether she was able to ignore the warrant or whether it required her to act. Karen Price, the victim’s sister, and her attorneys filed a special action with the Arizona Supreme Court requiring Governor Hobbs to execute the warrant. Price sought a writ of mandamus (an order that compels a public official to fulfill a non-discretionary duty imposed by law) against Hobbs to force her to execute Gunches. Price argued that the language of the execution warrant allowed for no discretion and mandated that Hobbs enforce it.
The Arizona Supreme Court sided with Governor Hobbs. The court held that the execution warrant that it issued “authorized” the Governor to proceed with the execution of Mr. Gunches. This authorization, however, did not rise to the level of a command. The warrant gave the governor the authority to move forward with the death penalty, but it did not contain any binding language requiring the governor to do so. Because of this lack of binding language, the court concluded that the writ of mandamus sought by Karen Price would not be appropriate.
The Arizona Supreme Court also recognized other arguments made by Price. It acknowledged that the Arizona Constitution requires that the governor “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” including those laws mandating how and when executions should take place. The court also recognized that the Arizona Constitution protects certain victims’ rights, among which are the right to a “prompt and final conclusion of the case.” However, the court declined to address these arguments fully because they involved issues of mixed law and fact that were not before the court. This matters because by leaving these issues unaddressed, the court left the door open for future challenges to Governor Hobbs’s death penalty policy based on these arguments.
Death Penalty Moratorium Moving Forward
This ruling from the Arizona Supreme Court was a victory for Governor Hobbs, as it allows her to maintain the state-wide execution moratorium while the DPIRC works to improve the death penalty process. However, the fact that the ruling did not dismiss out of hand the other arguments made by the victim’s family suggests that proponents of the death penalty might be able to use these arguments as an avenue to move executions forward in Arizona. It remains to be seen whether these arguments about the governor’s duties regarding executions will be brought to the Arizona Supreme Court in future cases, and how the court will rule.
By Tyler Mebane
J.D. Candidate, 2025
Tyler Mebane is a 2L Law Student at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He completed his undergraduate education at Arizona State University where he graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering. Tyler is pursuing a career working in public interest and is particularly interested in the fields of environmental law and criminal defense. When he is not studying Tyler can be found hiking, rock climbing, and generally exploring the outdoors.