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Arizona gets ready for first execution in almost a decade

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: May. 10, 2022 at 10:31 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - As Arizona readies for its first execution in nearly eight years, questions linger about the drugs, wisdom and cost of the death penalty.

Clarence Dixon is one of 110 men and three women who sit on death row, 18 of them from Pima County. Of the 37 inmates who have been executed in the past 30 years, 12 have come from Pima County.

“The Pima County Attorney’s office in the 80s and 90s was very active in making the death penalty on first-degree murder charges,” said former prosecutor Rich Unkelsbay.

And Unklesbay was likely one of the most active prosecutors in the office who tried more than 100 first-degree murder cases.

“I tried about 20 of them as death penalty cases,” he said. “I had 16 sentenced to death.”

One of those was Don Miller, who was executed in 2000. It was an execution Unklesbay witnessed.

Miller was hired by Joe Anthony Luna’s to help kill Luna girlfirned because she asked for $50 child support.

“Don Miller was executed.. obviously it didn’t bring Jennifer back, it didn’t really bring any justice to the victim’s family ultimately,” Unklesbay said. “And so it was around then I started thinking should we be doing this?”

His thinking about it led to a critically acclaimed book titled “Arbitrary Death,” which was published in 2019. In it, he recounts the death penalty cases over the years and why he changed his opinion on capital punishment.

“Not for any moral, philosophical or religious reasons, but it’s a very expensive undertaking and we get very little in return,” he said.

A death penalty case can cost millions of dollars and take decades to prosecute. That can cause emotional distress to the families who will face years of motions, hearings, execution dates, reprieves with very little to show for it.

Only about 6% of those who are sentenced to death are executed.

“You know we’ve had delays from the very beginning,” said Debbie Carlson, whose 8-year-old daughter was murdered by Frank Jarvis Atwood in 1984. “Never in a million years did I ever think at the beginning of this journey our grandchildren would have to experience all of this with us,” she said.

“I’ve had families tell me afterwards where I did not seek the death penalty and then the family sees what happened to some of the other cases and they thank me and say, ‘I’m glad you didn’t seek the death penalty,’” Unklesbay said.

But in Arizona, it’s not just the emotional and financial toll which has called the death penalty into question.

It’s also the very drugs used to execute the inmate.

“Arizona has a long-troubled history in how it’s gone about administering lethal injections,” said Sam Kooistra, a legal advisor for the Arizona Capital Project.

Likely the most egregious came just eight years ago.

In 2014, the state executed Joe Wood.

That execution, which was supposed to take a few minutes or less, lasted two hours. He was injected 15 times with a two-drug protocol.

“We do know in the past they obtained similar supplies from disreputable, illegal sources,” Kooistra said.

Kooistra added Arizona has violated federal law trying to obtain execution drugs on the black market.

“Arizona is not the only state that’s having similar problems tinkering with drugs,” he said. “We’ve seen botched executions all over the country in recent years.”

It appears all challenges to Dixon’s execution have failed and it will likely be carried out.

Still, the state has refused to say where it got the drugs that will be used.

“I don’t support the death penalty in any way, in any circumstance,” Kooista said. “But if you’re going to do it, do it above board and that’s not what this process has been at all.”

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