Senate panel recommends confirmation of new Department of Corrections director

By Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, June 6, 2023 - 3:06pm
Updated: Wednesday, June 7, 2023 - 8:09am

Corrections Director Ryan Thornell
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Ryan Thornell

A Senate panel voted Tuesday to recommend confirmation of a new head of the state prison system after he assured them his agency is ready to again start executing inmates on death row.

But it will be months — if not longer — until that happens. And that has to do with policies set by Gov. Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes.

The issue of the willingness of Ryan Thornell to carry out the ultimate penalty is crucial to lawmakers because he was the one who told the Arizona Supreme Court earlier this year his agency was not prepared to put Aaron Gunches to death as scheduled on April 6.

In a March 15, affidavit, Thornell, the choice of Hobbs to head the state Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry told the justices that when he took over in January he was lacking historical information on everything from how executions were carried out in the past to questions about whether there were people who had the expertise to insert the intravenous lines available to administer the drugs.

On top of that, he said, there were issues about whether the drugs could be prepared.

"My inquiries have revealed cause for concern with the department's present ability to carry out an execution consistent with its constitutional and legal obligations,'' Thornell told the court.

As a result, the original warrant expired and the Supreme Court refused to extend the date.

Gunches remains alive and incarcerated.

Sen. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) who heads the committee tasked with reviewing all of the governor's nominations to head state agencies, asked Thornell whether he was disregarding the warrant to execute Gunches.

"We want departments and department heads, specifically, that will follow the law,'' he said.

But Thornell said he did no such thing.

"The warrant of execution was an authorization, not an order,'' he told Hoffman, allowing — but not requiring — his agency to execute Gunches. And that position, he said, was backed by the governor and attorney general.

With no active warrants against Gunches or anyone else, that returned the situation to the way it was in January when Hobbs issued an executive order to study of the processes and procedures used to put people to death.

Arizona resumed executions last year after an eight-year pause following the botched procedure when Joseph Wood was given 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours. Three inmates were put to death in 2022.

Hobbs, in ordering the study, said the process has remained plagued by questions.

"Recent executions have been embroiled in controversy,'' she said. There were reports that prison employees had repeated problems in placing the intravenous line into the veins of the condemned men.

"The death penalty is a controversial issue to begin with,'' the governor continued. "We just want to make sure the practices are sound and that we don't end up with botched executions like we've seen recently.''

The governor appointed David Duncan, a retired federal magistrate, to conduct the study. But the governor has not placed any deadline on Duncan to report, meaning no one will be executed at least until that is done.

And Mayes, in tandem, announced she would not seek additional warrants until that study is completed.

But Thornell assured lawmakers that he's not the one standing in the way of executions. He said the issues that left his agency unprepared to put Gunches to death in April have now been resolved.

"We have gone through all of our review, all of our preparation,'' he said. That includes putting the necessary staff in place and contacting the individuals who can insert the necessary intravenous lines; ensure they work; and monitoring the administration of the lethal drugs.

The final step, Thornell said, depends on the Supreme Court issuing a new warrant of execution, whether for Gunches or any of the other 107 men and three women on "death row.'' That deals with compounding the necessary drugs, something he said needs to be properly timed because of the shelf life of those chemicals.

And Thornell reassured lawmakers that, while he came to Arizona from the Maine prison system, which has no death penalty, he is not opposed to it.

Politics Arizona Prisons