PHOENIX – Attorneys for a Latino on death row in Arizona want his execution delayed until the state has a new governor, arguing in a Tuesday filing that Gov. Jan Brewer packed the clemency board with "political cronies" in an unconstitutional, closed-door process.
In their filing in the Arizona Supreme Court, defense attorneys for death-row inmate Samuel Villegas Lopez argue that he can’t receive a fair hearing with the state’s clemency board, often an inmate’s last chance for mercy before an execution.
Brewer overhauled the board in April, a move that her spokesman Matt Benson said at the time was designed to “bring fresh insight and fresh blood” to the board.
“The Arizona Supreme Court has already found these allegations to be without merit. The latest filing is more of the same,” Benson said in statement Tuesday evening. “Governor Brewer appropriately nominated qualified individuals to the Board of Executive Clemency, including a Democrat, and they were properly confirmed by the Arizona Senate. The governor and the Board of Executive Clemency have the right to defend themselves when named in a lawsuit in which spurious and sanctionable allegations are asserted.”
In their filing, Lopez’s attorneys argued that the new board members are “political cronies” appointed to ensure that they never vote for executions to be delayed or overturned.
The attorneys also argue that the selection committee for the new board members questioned potential members about how they would vote on controversial or high-profile cases in interviews that were closed to the public in violation of open-meetings laws.
“While the Governor may be free to appoint her political cronies to Arizona boards and commissions, and while political patronage may be an accepted part of Arizona government, the law at least requires that those actions be known to the public,” the filing said.
“Offensive to any reasonable notion of fairness, this denial of access to the clemency process would not have occurred in the sunlight of public scrutiny,” they wrote. “Mr. Lopez must now plead for mercy before a board constituted of a majority of members selected by that process.”
Lopez’s clemency hearing is set for Friday.
His attorneys also argue that statements made by Benson and newly appointed board Chairman Jesse Hernandez to reporters display clear bias against Lopez and a prejudgment of his request for mercy.
For instance, Benson told The Associated Press last month that defense attorneys were “attempting to further delay justice for the heinous crimes committed by their client 25 years ago.”
“Throwing together a host of trumped-up charges against a citizen board does not change that fact,” he said.
Hernandez has told the AP that the attorneys were “grandstanding” in filing a lawsuit against Brewer and the board in Maricopa County Superior Court over the new board members.
Hernandez did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The Arizona Supreme Court already delayed Lopez’s execution once, on May 15, to give the new clemency board members time to undergo four weeks of training before they held a hearing about Lopez’s fate.
The court granted the delay on the grounds that Lopez was denied a fair chance for clemency because a majority of the board members had not undergone the training. The court rescheduled the May 16 execution for June 27.
Lopez faces a lethal injection at a state prison in Florence for the 1986 murder of Estefana Holmes. The Phoenix woman was raped, robbed and stabbed in what authorities described as a “terrible and prolonged struggle.”