FLORENCE, Ariz. — Witnesses expect to be able to see prison officials inject a lethal drug into a condemned inmate for the first time in Arizona history today, when the state is scheduled to execute its fourth prisoner of the year.
Arizona opened up the process after a federal judge recently sided with The Associated Press and other news organizations in Idaho to allow witnesses full viewing access to lethal injections.
Until now, witnesses from the news media, the state and victims’ family members walked into the death chamber at the state prison in Florence after the inmates had been injected and covered with a sheet up to their chest or neck. Once the witnesses were in place, the drugs then coursed through the inmates’ veins.
Now witnesses will see the actual injection, something that defense attorneys sought in an effort to ensure inmates don’t experience any unnecessary pain.
Samuel Villegas Lopez is set to be Arizona’s fourth inmate to die by a single-drug lethal injection. Two more condemned prisoners whose appeals are nearing their end could be executed by the end of the year, which would put the state on pace to match its busiest year for executions and among the busiest death-penalty states in the nation.
Lopez was sentenced to die for the brutal rape and murder of a 59-year-old Phoenix woman in 1986. Of the 126 inmates on Arizona’s death row, only five have been there longer than him.
The U.S. Supreme Court turned down his last appeal on Tuesday, paving the way of the execution. He also lost a number of last-minute efforts to avoid the death penalty, including a request with the state Supreme Court to delay his execution until Arizona has a new governor. He claimed that Gov. Jan Brewer and the state’s clemency board were prejudiced against him.
Brewer denied his lawyer’s allegations that she placed “political cronies” on the board who’ll never recommend lessening a death-row inmate’s sentence to life in prison.
In denying him clemency, the board members called him “the worst of the worst.”
Defense attorney Kelley Henry didn’t dispute Lopez’s guilt, but focused on the fact that trial attorneys failed to present any evidence that Lopez had a horrific childhood — a mitigating factor that could have gotten him a sentence of life in prison.
A neuropsychiatrist testified that Lopez’s childhood was filled with poverty, neglect, abuse and periods of homelessness during which he often had to sleep in cemeteries. Lopez dropped out of school in the ninth grade and became addicted to sniffing paint.
In an affidavit provided to the board, Lopez wrote that he has no memory of the crime because he had been spending so much time sniffing paint that he would forget entire days.
Lopez was convicted of killing Estafana Holmes, a poor seamstress and grandmother who lived alone. On Oct. 30, 1986, police found her half-naked body with three major stab wounds to her head, one on her face, and 23 in her left breast and upper chest.
She had been blindfolded and gagged with her own clothing, and her throat had been slit. Blood was splattered on walls in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Semen found on her body matched Lopez’s after the 24-year-old was arrested in a separate rape less than a week later.
The state Supreme Court in 1993 upheld Lopez’s death sentence, saying that the state of Holmes’ apartment and her body showed “a terrific struggle for life” and calling the killing a “grisly and ultimately fatal nightmare.”
He later wrote in the affidavit to the clemency board that “what happened to Ms. Holmes was so horrible and so wrong. I’ve been always been sorry for what she went through that night and for what her family has gone through ever since.”
Lopez did not know Holmes, who was described by her family as hard-working, loving and deeply religious. Nearly a dozen of her family members, some of whom planned to witness the execution, pleaded with the clemency board to allow the execution to proceed.
“Let me ask you, Mr. Lopez, did our sister plead for her life as you stabbed her two dozen times?” said Sarah Bryant, one of Holmes’ sisters. “Did she beg you not to rape her? Did she plead with you to spare her life as you almost decapitated her? Did she?”
“Nothing will bring her back, but you should pay for it,” she said.