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A Brief History of the Death Penalty in Arizona

June 12, 2020

Capital punishment has long been a hot button legal issue across the U.S. While the death penalty is not explicitly outlawed by the U.S. Constitution, there have been several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court that have shaped how the death penalty is implemented in Arizona and across the nation. Currently, capital punishment is legal in Arizona under certain specific circumstances, such as first-degree murder. While sentences including capital punishment are not the most common, it is helpful to understand the laws surrounding these sentences. To do that, it’s helpful to look back on the history of the death penalty in the state. 

1910s – Arizona’s First Prison

The state’s first prison was erected when Arizona was still just a territory. Florence Prison, located in Florence, AZ, was the sight of the state’s first execution in 1910. The execution took place by hanging, as did all state executions until 1931. 

1916 – The Death Penalty Is Suspended

Throughout its history, the death penalty has faced many legal challenges in Arizona. 1916 marked the first, when an initiative passed to outlaw the death penalty in December of that year. However, capital punishment quickly returned to Arizona in 1918. Nineteen executions by hanging followed with the last taking place on June 30, 1931. 

1934 – Lethal Gas Execution Is Introduced

Execution by lethal gas replaced execution by hanging beginning in 1934. Two brothers, Manuel and Fred Hernandez, were executed at 5:00 a.m. on July 6, 1934. Lethal gas execution is still legal in Arizona, and those who are sentenced to the death penalty may choose between lethal gas and lethal injection. 

1972 – U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Furman v. Georgia

1972 was a landmark year for state laws surrounding the death penalty in the United States. While the Supreme Court did not rule that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia, it did find that found 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. This meant that many states, including Arizona, had to rewrite their capital punishment laws to continue issuing this sentence. 

1978 – Death Penalty Suspended Again 

In 1978, the death penalty statute in Arizona was deemed unconstitutional, and all executions were stayed in the state. However, a subsequent court case in the same year would determine that Arizona’s death penalty was constitutional except for a limitation on the presentation of mitigation. In 1979, Arizona reinstated the death penalty with a small revision and previous sentences again became effective. The next execution in the state took place on April 5th, 1992 when Donald E. Harding was killed by lethal gas. In 1992, Arizona voters approved execution by lethal injection. 

2002 – Further Refining National Laws on Capital Punishment

In 2002, the Supreme Court further defined laws regarding capital punishment. More specifically, it ruled that execution of mentally incompetent criminals is cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. This case, Atkins v. Virginia further defined that mentally incompetent in this context means that a mental disease or defect is preventing a person who is sentenced to death from understanding that he or she is to be punished for the crime of murder and is unaware that the punishment for this crime is death. 

2014 – Lethal Injection Spikes Controversy 

In 2014, the death penalty again came into the spotlight following the execution of Joseph R. Wood III by lethal injection. Executioners allegedly injected him 15 times with the standard dose of a sedative and a painkiller during a procedure that lasted nearly two hours before their client was declared dead. While this did cause a temporary halt to state executions, it has not to date altered state laws on capital punishment. 

If you are facing criminal charges of any kind, defend your rights with representation from Janet Altschuler, Attorney at Law. Ms. Altschuler has dedicated her 20-year career to criminal law, and she is well versed in Arizona state laws as well as the local court system in Pima County. Whether you have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor, Janet Altschuler will work hard to achieve the best possible outcome for your case. Call our office to schedule a confidential consultation at (520) 247-1789.