Arizona State delays execution to provide training time Clemency board members must undergo four weeks of required training

By Paul Davenport

Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday postponed a scheduled execution to provide time for newly appointed members of the state clemency board to undergo required training before they hold a hearing for the condemned man.

Samuel Villegas Lopez had been set for execution Wednesday for the murder of a Phoenix woman.

The Supreme Court granted a stay requested by his lawyers on the grounds that Lopez was denied a fair chance for clemency because a majority of the Board of Executive Clemency's members have yet to undergo four weeks of required training.

The court said it wasn't directly ruling on that issue, but it rescheduled Lopez's execution for June 27. It said the postponement served the "interests of justice" by providing the five-member board with time for the training and for holding a clemency hearing for Lopez.

The court rejected another claim by Lopez's lawyers that some board members recently appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer are unqualified for failing to previously demonstrate an interest in corrections. That's a requirement under state law.

A trial judge had scheduled a July 7 hearing on both the training and qualifications issues, which the judge said might deny Lopez a fair shot clemency. Lopez was seeking commutation of his death sentence to life in prison or a reprieve to delay his execution.

Prosecutors responded Tuesday to the request for a stay by arguing that Lopez's defense team declined to participate when a clemency hearing was to be held and that any alleged flaws in the board's makeup are minor and don't prevent it from doing its job.

Lopez's scheduled execution Wednesday would have been Arizona's fourth this year.

He faced 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."

Meanwhile, two three-judge panels of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Tuesday each denied an appeal filed on Lopez's behalf. One challenged the state's execution procedures, and the second argued that he was denied effective legal representation.

In a lawsuit filed last week, Lopez's lawyers argued the state's clemency process is flawed. They claimed that the board's makeup was revamped to avoid having clemency recommendations in high-profile cases land on the desk of Brewer, and asked that the clemency board be reconstituted.

Earlier that week, a lawyer for Lopez challenged the validity of a hearing for her client and then walked out.

Brewer's spokesman has said the governor did not reappoint several board members whose terms had expired because she wanted "fresh insight and fresh blood" on the board.

Solicitor General David Cole told Judge Joseph Kreamer of Maricopa County Superior Court during Monday's hearing that state law doesn't specify that the required training has to take place before board members start hearing cases.

The judge said to think otherwise would negate the purpose of the training requirement.

Published: Thu, May 17, 2012