KOLD Investigates: An unexpected death sentence

Days from Death

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - “He wasn’t the same happy self; that wasn’t my husband,” said Imelda Caballero.

Imelda said her husband, Luis Caballero, had become unrecognizable in his final days.

“It was like from day to night. What happened? What went wrong,” Imelda asked.

Imelda said Luis started having stomach pains in 2017.

“First they told him it was acid reflux. He went to see the doctor again and they told him he had an ulcer,” Imelda said.

Luis was seeking medical attention from prison. He was serving nearly 27 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections after pleading guilty to aggravated assault and narcotics charges in 2009.

His little sister, Yulissa Caballero, became his advocate.

“He said, ‘I’m having these symptoms, and I want you to look them up to see what you can find,’” Yulissa said.

Yulissa said this year, two years after the onset of his symptoms, a new doctor confirmed the family’s biggest fear. Luis had stage four colon cancer.

“I guess we will never know what would have happened if they would have just paid ore attention and taken further precaution as to his symptoms," Yulissa said.

The family hired attorney Brick Storts to help Luis get a hearing before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which considers early release if an inmate is within four months of death.

Storts submitted Luis’ application for a hearing on June 28th. The hearing was then scheduled for August 13th.

With Luis so close to death, the KOLD Investigates team asked Kathryn Blades, executive director of the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, why the board did not schedule a hearing for an earlier date.

“The Board does not have the authority to schedule an imminent danger of death commutation hearing until it receives a completed application from the Department of Corrections. Board staff is working with representatives from ADC to discuss how the agencies could work together to improve process flow- from ADC receipt of an application from an inmate, to delivery of a completed application to the Board, to the Board scheduling the hearing, and to holding the clemency hearing," Blades said in a statement.

When Luis did go before the board, a doctor testified that he was within imminent danger of death.

“That was the basis for the board’s decision to recommend to the governor that Mr. Caballero be given executive clemency and be allowed to live the last week or two of his life at home,” Storts said.

Storts said he expected the governor to not only approve Luis’ early release, but do so expeditiously.

"It is an oddity; it doesn’t happen very often. I can’t imagine they have huge volumes of executive clemency petitions on the governor’s desk that are dealing with imminent death,” Storts said.

We took that question to Gov. Doug Ducey.

Since taking office in 2005, Ducey has granted nine clemency requests related to an inmate within imminent danger of death.

Two of those were granted this year.

As for Luis’ request? The governor never responded.

Luis died in prison on Sept. 9, 2019.

“It was 6:52 a.m., I remember exactly. I received the phone call, private number. It was an officer from the department of corrections. Before you say anything, I told the him, please just tell me my brother is okay. He said, ‘I am sorry to inform you, he has passed away,’” Yulissa said.

The KOLD Investigates team obtained the letter the board sent to the governor recommending Caballero, “be given the opportunity to spend his final days with family members."

Why didn’t this happen?

Storts asked the same question. He sent a letter to the governor, which reads in part, “It was extremely cruel for the family not to have been allowed even a week with Mr. Caballero before he passed away.”

“I felt like if nothing else, the family deserved that letter to the chief executive officer to let them know someone did bother to care a little,” Storts said.

The governor’s office responded, offering condolences and saying in part, “we and the Board are looking into ways to further expedite the process.”

A spokesperson for Ducey said, “Our office reviews all clemency requests as we receive them based on the merits, and imminent danger of death requests are given due and urgent consideration. Decisions are made on the circumstances unique to each individual request.”

Now Luis’ family is staying true to the promise they made to him before he died.

“He said, 'You know what, if I don’t get out of here alive, I want you to do everything you can to make sure this won’t happen to anybody else,” Yulissa said.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.