Death row prisoner waives clemency hearing, but execution unlikely
Death row prisoner Aaron Gunches formally waived his right to a clemency hearing Thursday morning, appearing remotely before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency.
Gunches was sentenced to death for the 2002 murder of Ted Price, a former longtime boyfriend of Gunches' girlfriend. Gunches kidnapped and shot Price multiple times in a desert area off the Beeline Highway.
Gunches pleaded guilty to kidnapping and first-degree murder in 2004 and consistently has waived his right to counsel, mitigation, and post-conviction litigation.
In December 2022, Gunches asked the state Supreme Court to issue a death warrant "so that justice may be lawfully served and give closure to the victim's family."
The clemency board scheduled the hearing after the Supreme Court granted a warrant of execution for Gunches earlier this month.
After newly elected Gov. Katie Hobbs stated she would not proceed with the execution pending a review of the death penalty process, Price's sister filed a petition to force the governor to carry out the warrant.
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Hobbs was not obligated to do so.
Board Chair Mina Mendez said despite the ruling, the board was following protocol that was set into place when the warrant was issued.
Gunches, appearing via video conference from the Eyman prison complex in Florence, had sent the board a signed waiver of a hearing statement, which the board asked him to confirm.
The state Supreme Court had refused Gunches' request to send him court filings through the prison email system. Gunches said the notification method of U.S. mail and receiving forwarded messages from an advisory counsel meant he hasn't been receiving court filings in a timely fashion. That was evident Thursday morning.
"What exactly was this ruling?" Gunches asked after hearing Mendez referencing the previous evening's ruling as she stated the procedural history of his case for the record.
Mendez explained to Gunches the essence of the ruling, which was confirmed by Gunches' advisory counsel.
Gunches appeared to grimace and roll his eyes when he learned his execution was not imminent.
"But for our purposes today, nothing has changed," Mendez said. "You're still waiving your right to have a clemency hearing?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," Gunches responded.
The state Supreme Court ruling was issued without prejudice, meaning Price could file another petition. Price's legal advocate, Colleen Clase, did not respond to a request for a comment on the ruling or the hearing.
Mendez said "if things change in the future," the process would start over and Gunches could request a new clemency hearing if a new execution date were scheduled.
No statements were made about Gunches' case by board members, or attorneys for Gunches or the state, and no comments from the public.
“The Arizona Supreme Court decision yesterday affirms our position, and allows the Arizona Department of Corrections to ensure any execution conducted under this administration will be done lawfully and humanely," Hobbs said in a statement Thursday.
"Being adequately staffed and prepared to carry out an execution is an urgent and critical duty ADCRR is tasked with, and the Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner should complete his work before the state proceeds in carrying out the gravest of penalties.”
Newly appointed corrections director Ryan Thornell had submitted a declaration while Price's petition was before the Supreme Court, saying the Department of Corrections lacks the staff “with the necessary institutional knowledge and expertise to conduct an execution.”
Attorney General Kris Mayes said she appreciated the court's guidance "concerning the separation of powers and who has the ultimate authority to carry out executions in Arizona."
"The families of Ted Price and other victims deserve finality and justice," Mayes said in a statement Thursday. "But we must give the new leadership at ADCRR and the newly appointed Death Penalty Independent Review Commissioner time to ensure executions are carried out constitutionally, competently, and transparently to the public."
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