By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — The chief prosecutor of the state’s second-largest district said a planned study of Arizona’s implementation of the death penalty does not go far enough.
“I applaud them for looking at how it’s actually being done,” Pima County Prosecutor Laura Conover said of Gov. Katie Hobbs’ decision to review the processes and procedures mandated by the Department of Corrections , rehabilitation and reentry used to house convicted inmates These include what the governor said were “botched executions,” including situations where prison employees have had repeated problems getting the IV line containing the chemicals into convicts’ veins.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Kris Mayes, the only person in the state with that authority, said she will not seek any death warrants until that trial is complete.
But Conover, a Democrat like Hobbs and Mayes, told Capitol Media Services that the study should be broader.
“The shortcomings of the death penalty are just beginning,” she said. And at the heart of that, Conover said, is how decisions are made about which cases prosecutors are seeking the death penalty and whether there is bias in both decisions and the ability of all defendants to receive equal treatment, including by the jury that tested the make the final decision about life or death.
But Rachel Mitchell, her Maricopa County counterpart and Republican, said Tuesday she saw no such bias.
She said even defendants who cannot afford a private attorney are assigned “extremely experienced attorneys” and even have the opportunity to use court-supplied private investigators. – who have the final say under Arizona law – whether to sentence someone to death or life imprisonment.
Figures from state prison officials show that 17 of the 110 inmates on death row are black, about 15 percent. But blacks make up less than 5 percent of the state’s population.
The data for those classified by the state as Mexican-American is slightly different, and includes 22 convicted inmates, or 20 percent of the total.
The only thing is, as used by the agency, this category only includes those who were born in the United States. In contrast, the Census Bureau, which puts Arizona’s Hispanic population at nearly 31 percent, includes everyone in Arizona regardless of where they were born, a category that includes not only people of Mexican descent but also Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and others .
“In terms of the racial makeup of death row, like me, you have to look at each individual case,” Mitchell said.
“I’m looking at the facts,” she said, including the “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors under state law that prosecutors and juries may consider when deciding whether the death penalty is appropriate or a life sentence is desirable. Mitchell said, to “ensure the case warrants ultimate punishment.”
However, Conover said it wasn’t that clear cut.
“The data is historically clear across the country that both race and class play a totally unacceptable role in the application, which only leads to horrific results,” she said.
“In other words, the concept that the death penalty is reserved for the ‘worst of the worst’ has not borne fruit,” Conover continued. “The data show that the race of the accused, the race of the victim and then socioeconomic class all play a role.”
Even Mayes said the state needs to examine more than what’s between the time someone is sentenced to death and the time it is carried out, the stated purpose of Hobbs’ appointment of an independent review officer for the death penalty. And the attorney general told Capitol Media Services the issue goes beyond race.
“In particular, I’m interested to know if there are differences between counties in Arizona as to who receives the death penalty,” Mayes said.
“It’s starting to look like the death penalty is being sought in Maricopa County only because Maricopa County can afford it,” she explained, which has to do with the huge price tag for prosecutors and defense attorneys who dedicate years — and sometimes decades their time on only a handful of cases.
“We need to understand that better before we move on.”
Statistics show that about 60 percent of Arizonans live in the state’s largest county, compared to nearly 73 percent of death row inmates there.
About 14 percent of the state lives in Pima County. This corresponds exactly to the percentage of inmates sentenced to death.
But all that changes when Conover decides when he takes office in 2021 not to seek the death penalty under any circumstances.
The remainder of the 110 includes six from Mohave County — about twice its share of the state population — with three from Yuma County, two from Yavapai, and one each from Coconino, La Paz, and Pinal counties.
Even Hobbs, when issuing her executive order Friday to examine the processes for conducting executions, said she was open to delving into related issues, such as whether the death penalty is being fairly administered.
“It’s certainly worth a conversation,” Hobbs said. The governor said she “would certainly be willing to consider further action on the broader issue of the whole process.”
For her part, Mitchell seems less than enthusiastic about even the closer scrutiny being promoted by Hobbs and Mayes, as it delays the execution of 21 inmates who have already exhausted their appeals.
“Families of people murdered by those on death row have a long and painful journey,” she said. “For most, this is a decades-long journey.”
And Mitchell sidestepped the question of whether she supports or opposes studying the execution process — and the delay in carrying it out meanwhile.
“I do neither,” she said. As for what Mitchell said, she supports a “speedy” study so that executions can resume and victims can have the “justice” they were promised in the 1990 voter-sanctioned victims’ Bill of Rights amendment to the Constitution Arizona, including an “immediate and final post-conviction and sentencing closure of the case.”
“I hope that as a state we don’t give up on our promise of justice, because justice delayed is justice denied,” she said.
But Conover said she sees the issue of time taken in capital cases from a different perspective — and one that she and her prosecutors are trying to explain to survivors when telling them they are not seeking the death penalty will.
“You have to tell them that their grief is great and their needs are urgent,” she said. “But a murder charge can take a year, two, three years.”
And on appeals and post-conviction trials in death penalty cases, she warns them, “You may not get this case resolved in your lifetime.”
“And honestly, it wasn’t uncommon for families to not want that and be like, ‘I don’t want to go that route,'” Conover said, but instead sought a more immediate and definitive action with a sentence of life behind bars with no possibility of parole.
She acknowledged that her decision to avoid the death penalty also had a fiscal element.
“They’re going to take your best and brightest and write this blank check on taxpayers’ money and ask them to just pursue one specific case for the rest of their careers, supposedly forever,” Conover said, given the decades it takes.
In fact, one inmate — Ronald Williams, who was convicted of a 1981 murder during a Scottsdale robbery — has been on death row since 1984. And two others have convictions dating back to 1989.
Hobbs has yet to name the officer responsible for the study. And the governor hasn’t set a deadline for that person’s report.