A blog produced by the Oregon Justice Resource Center discussing the death penalty (capital punishment) in Oregon and in the Ninth Circuit.
Gov. Jan Brewer has overhauled Arizona’s five-member board that often is the last chance for death-row inmates to seek mercy, a move that comes with the state on pace for one of its busiest years for executions.
The three new members of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency were confirmed by the Senate this week at Brewer’s recommendation and can begin considering cases immediately.
They will have to decide whether to recommend mercy for a death-row inmate who is scheduled to be executed next month — a lengthy process that involves poring over hundreds of documents and sitting in on a complicated, often emotional, hours-long hearing before they must reach a decision.
The outgoing members have a reputation among prosecutors, defense attorneys and anti-death-penalty advocates for being fair and open-minded, especially its now-former chairman and executive director, Duane Belcher.
Belcher had been on the board since 1992 after first being appointed by then-Gov. Fife Symington, a Republican. He was reappointed in 2003 by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.
Although Belcher reapplied to the board after his term expired, Belcher said the board’s nominating committee declined to interview him.
“I was told that they were going in a different direction and that I’m not included in that,” he said.
Belcher said he doesn’t know exactly what that means and has been asking himself that question over and over again.
Brewer spokesman Matt Benson said that new board members “can bring fresh insight and fresh blood to a board and that can be valuable.”
“Governors have the authority to put individuals on boards and committees — that’s one of the core functions that any governor has, and Gov. Brewer has always tried to appoint individuals that she thinks bring the most experience and best perspective to those positions,” he said.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys, family members of murder victims and various others wrote to the nominating committee and Brewer to urge that Belcher be retained.
Patricia Noland, clerk of Pima County Superior Court and a former Republican lawmaker, wrote in her letter that Belcher offered “dedication, expertise and focus.”
As a surviving family member of a murder victim herself, Noland also wrote that she appears before the board on a yearly basis for parole hearings for the man convicted in the killing.
“Although these are always trying times for myself and my family, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, under Mr. Belcher’s leadership, has always conducted the hearings in an extremely professional manner, showing the utmost sensitivity and respect to our family, yet giving the inmate their rightful access to consideration by the board,” she wrote.
Rick Unklesbay, chief trial counsel for the Pima County Attorney’s Office who often goes before the board to argue against inmates seeking mercy, wrote Belcher a note on April 16, saying he was “surprised, shocked, and saddened” when he heard of his departure from the board.
“Your work for the last 20 years has left a mark on this state that will be hard for anyone to equal,” Unklesbay wrote. “The integrity, honesty, hard work and thoughtfulness that you brought to the board should set the standard to meet for all those who follow you.”
Belcher can only remember the board recommending that an execution be delayed two times, that of Walter Hinze LaGrand in 1999 and that of Jeffrey Landrigan in 2010.
LaGrand’s execution proceeded in Arizona’s gas chamber after then-Gov. Jane Hull disagreed with the board and allowed him to be put to death. Landrigan’s moved forward because Brewer also disagreed with the board.
Some board members have voted to recommend that an inmate’s sentence be reduced from the death penalty to life in prison, but they have been in the minority and the executions proceeded.
Belcher’s last day as head of the board was Thursday, although he is staying on for a while to help the new members acclimate.
His replacement is Jesse Hernandez, who is the outreach and government affairs director for Republican Rep. David Schweikert and founded the Arizona Latino Republican Association. He wrote on his resume that he also served overseas with the U.S. Army’s Military Police Corps.
Hernandez did not return repeated calls and e-mails for comment Friday.
The other two outgoing board members are Marilyn Wilkens and Ellen Kirschbaum, both appointed to the board in 2010 by Brewer. They are replaced by Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association and a former longtime Phoenix police officer, and Melvin Thomas, former warden of a private Arizona prison that houses inmates convicted of drunken driving.
The replacements come as Arizona is on pace to match its busiest year for executions since establishing the death penalty in 1910 and become among the busiest death-penalty states in the nation.
The most inmates Arizona has executed in a given year was seven inmates in 1999.
Arizona has executed two inmates so far this year — Robert Henry Moormann on Feb. 29 and Robert Charles Towery on March 8.
Thomas Arnold Kemp, 63, is set for execution on Thursday for killing a Tucson college student after robbing him.
Samuel Villegas Lopez, 49, is scheduled to be executed on May 16 for the brutal rape and murder of a Phoenix woman.
The state could schedule three more on top of Lopez’s and Kemp’s executions this year, putting the state on pace to execute seven men in 2012.
The new clemency board will consider its first death-penalty case on May 7 when Lopez will ask to have his sentence reduced to life in prison or delayed for further legal arguments.
Belcher said he plans to give the new board members his best piece of advice.
“Your vote is your vote,” he said. “Don’t let your vote or your principles be compromised by politics or any other factors. Vote your conscious and you’ll do fine.”