Arizona Death Penalty History

Florence Prison

The state's first prison was constructed in Florence, Arizona in the early 1900s. Florence Prison was equipped with a death chamber located one floor above the cells on death row. The chamber itself was a scaffold and, in the floor, a trap door was constructed through which the bodies of the hanged fell into a room below. Death sentences have been carried out in Florence since 1910.

Execution by Hanging

Jose Lopez was the first individual executed by hanging at Florence on January 5, 1910. After the execution of Jose Lopez, 8 more individuals were executed. On December 8th 1916, an initiative measure went into effect eliminating the death penalty as punishment for convictions of first degree murder. The death penalty was restored December 5, 1918. Nineteen executions by hanging occurred between April 16, 1920 and June 20, 1931.

Execution by Lethal Gas

The first execution by lethal gas was carried out when two brothers, Manuel and Fred Hernandez, were executed at 5:00 a.m. on July 6, 1934. On March 4, 1962, Manuel E. Silvas was executed by lethal gas at 5:08 a.m.

Death Penalty Suspended Again

Between April 1962 and April 1992, no executions were performed.

In 1972 the United States Supreme Court held that the death penalty as administered violated the United States Constitution Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. A majority of the court found that the sentencing authority was not adequately guided in its discretion when imposing the death penalty, resulting in the death penalty being meted out in "arbitrary and capricious" ways.

The Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia did not rule the death penalty itself to be unconstitutional, only the specific laws by which it was applied. Thus, the states quickly began to write new death penalty laws designed to comply with the court's ruling.

In 1973 the Arizona Legislature enacted A.R.S. § 13-454, setting forth a new procedure for death penalty cases. The new statute provided for a separate sentencing hearing to be held before the trial court, rather than a jury, and enumerated six aggravating circumstances that could be considered in deciding whether to impose a death sentence.

In 1978: Arizona Statute regarding executions was ruled unconstitutional and all executions were stayed. In State v. Bishop, 118 Ariz. 263, 576 P.2d 122 (1978), the Arizona Supreme Court construed the list of mitigating circumstances enumerated in A.R.S. § 13-703(G) to be exclusive. Shortly after the Bishop decision, the Ohio statutory scheme limiting the presentation of mitigation was found to be improper by the United States Supreme Court in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978). The Court held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments require that the sentencer not be precluded from considering as mitigation any aspect of the defendant's character or record, and any circumstance of the offense argued by the defendant as mitigating the sentence to less than death.

Subsequently, the Arizona Supreme Court in State v. Watson, 120 Ariz. 441, 586 P.2d. 1253 (1978), held Arizona's death penalty statute unconstitutional because of its limitation on the presentation of mitigation. However, the Court found that the unconstitutional portion of the statute was severable from the constitutional portion, and the Court remanded the case to allow the defendant to present any circumstance showing why the death penalty should not be imposed. After the Court's decision in Watson, all prisoners on death row were remanded for new sentencing hearings to allow presentation of any evidence tending to mitigate the sentence as described in Lockett.

In 1979 the Arizona Legislature revised Arizona's Death Penalty Statute and sentences again became effective May 1, 1979.

On April 5, 1992, thirty years after the execution of Manuel E. Silvas, Donald E. Harding was put to death by lethal gas.

In November 1992, Arizona voters approved execution by lethal injection.  

Now, any person who committed a crime prior to November 23, 1992 and was sentenced to death may choose execution by lethal gas or lethal injection. Since the implementation of lethal injection, 14 inmates have been executed utilizing this method.  The last prisoner executed by lethal gas was Walter B. LaGrand on March 3, 1999.

Supreme Court Decisions Impacting Executions Since 2002

Since 2002, the United States Supreme Court has published four significant decisions regarding executions and the death penalty.  The United States Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), that execution of mentally incompetent criminals is "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.  "Mentally incompetent to be executed means that due to a mental disease or defect a person who is sentenced to death is presently unaware that he is to be punished for the crime of murder or that he is unaware that the impending punishment for that crime is death." 

In Ring v. Arizona536 U.S. 584 (2002), The United States Supreme Court held that a jury must decide "the presence or absence of aggravating factors" required by the law for the imposition of the death penalty.   Previously, the trial judge, sitting alone, made this determination, which the court found to be in violation of the Sixth Amendment.  Closely related to Ring is Schriro v. Summerlin, 542 U.S. 348 (2004).  As a result of the Ring decision, 27 Arizona capital cases were remanded to the county prosecutor for further action.  The Court held that the Ring decision did not apply retroactively to any case already on direct review, and that those previous cases would not be sent back for resentencing. 

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), that the "Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed."