When Does the Death Penalty Apply in Arizona?

In Arizona, the death penalty may be sought only in crimes of first-degree premeditated murder or for death – felony murder. The felony murder rule in Arizona allows the prosecution of an individual for murder if the death occurs during the commission of certain crimes, even if the person prosecuted did not actually kill the victim.

Thus, all perpetrators may be charged with capital murder even if only one person commits the homicide. These crimes include arson, kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault and child molestation. 

For a person to be sentenced to death, in addition to murder conviction itself, the court must find proof of aggravating circumstances and make the determination that the sentence is the most appropriate punishment under the circumstances. Finally, the defendant must be at least 15 years of age for the State to seek the death penalty.

 Aggravating circumstances for capital murder include:

  • A prior conviction for which a sentence of life imprisonment or death was imposable;
  • A prior serious offense involving the use or threat of violence;
  • Knowingly creating a grave risk of death to others outside of the victim;
  •  Procurement the commission of murder by payment or promise of payment;
  • Murder committed in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner;
  • Murder committed while in the custody of the State Department of Corrections, law enforcement agency or jail;
  • Previous capital conviction or multiple homicides;
  • Murder of a victim under 15 years of age or of a victim 70 years of age or older; and
  • The knowing murder of a law enforcement officer. 

According to Craig Orent, a criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix, “The court only needs to find one aggravating circumstance in order to apply the death penalty.

History of Death Penalty Laws in Arizona

Until 1934, Arizona executed prisoners by hanging. The gas chamber replaced this method. From 1962 to 1992, Arizona did not execute any prisoners, due in some part to the 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia, that the death penalty violated the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment, as it was being applied in the states.

In 1992, Arizona voters approved execution by lethal injection. Any person convicted before November 1992 who has been sentenced to death, may choose death by lethal injection.

In 2000, then Arizona Attorney General, Janet Napolitano, created the Capital Case Commission to study the death penalty in Arizona. Arizona has had a checkered history with regard to obtaining and using the drugs needed for death by lethal injection.

In 2011, there was a national shortage of the drugs needed for lethal injection. Arizona attempted to use sodium thiopental imported from India, but the FDA detained the shipment when it arrived at the airport in Phoenix. Arizona then switched from sodium thiopental to pentobarbital. It then began using midazolam, a controversial sedative.

In 2014, after the protracted execution of Joseph Wood, using a two-drug cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone, a federal judge issued a stay on executions in Arizona. To date, Joseph Wood is the last person to have been executed by the State of Arizona.

The witnesses to that execution were unable to hear Wood’s protracted gasping and choking and so were unaware of the severity of the situation. Wood was given at least 15 doses of the lethal injection cocktail during the approximately 2-hour execution before he expired. This execution gave rise to protracted litigation regarding Arizona’s administering of lethal injection.

Arizona Lawsuit Settlement

In June of 2020, Arizona settled a long-running execution lawsuit, First Amendment Coalition v. Ryan, brought over the lack of transparency in Arizona executions. The case, filed in part in response to the death of Joseph Wood, had been brought by seven death row inmates and a coalition of media organizations challenging Arizona’s execution practices involving:

  • Witnesses to the execution
  • The source and quality of the drugs used, and
  • The qualifications of execution team members inserting intravenous lines into inmates.

As a result of the settlement, the microphones which had previously been turned off are now required to remain on during the execution.

It is believed that this settlement will permanently end the state’s use of midazolam in executions, and will impose limits on the state’s discretion to deviate from its written lethal injection execution procedures, bringing transparency to any further executions. The Arizona Attorney General’s office has requested help from the state’s governor in getting pentobarbital so Arizona could resume executions. 

There are no executions currently scheduled in Arizona although Arizona currently has over 100 inmates on death row. 

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