Death row inmate's attorneys raise questions about AZ clemency board

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX, ARIZ.-- Lawyers for a death row inmate set to be executed next week will ask the courts to put a hold on the execution because of concerns about how new members were appointed to the Arizona's Executive Clemency Board, and whether those new members have had adequate training.

Samuel Villegas Lopez is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday May 16 for the brutal rape and murder of Phoenix woman Estefana "Essie" Holmes in 1986. At his clemency hearing on Monday, his attorneys walked out, claiming the appointments of three new members to the board violated state law.

Kelley Henry, a federal public defender who has worked on Lopez' case for more than a decade, said she believes there have been at least 16 violations of state statutes surrounding the appointments of the new members.

Among her allegations: that the state violated open meeting laws by failing to properly post information about board vacancies, that the new members have not had the four weeks of training required by statute, and that one of the board members has a clear conflict of interest voting on death penalty cases.

After Henry presented the board with her concerns, the members went into a closed-door executive session for close to an hour. When they re-opened the meeting to the public, they said they believed they could fairly continue the hearing, but Henry and her team disagreed and walked out.


"As we know it at this time, this board does not have the authority to conduct the hearing, or move forward," Henry said.

After the meeting new board Chairman Jesse Hernandez accused Henry of "grasping at straws" and said he and the other two new members, Melvin Thomas and Brian Livingston, are "more than qualified to serve on the board."

As for questions regarding the amount of training they've one, Hernandez said the training process has been started and that's within the confines of the law.

Lopez' attorneys plan to file a lawsuit in court Tuesday asking a judge to step in.

In the meantime, at least one board member, former Attorney General Jack LaSota, said he believed Governor Brewer should vacate the warrant for Lopez' execution to allow time for the issues to be addressed.

"I think the man is entitled at this point to a hearing by a board that has been determined to be appropriate," LaSota said, adding, "I think our board is appropriate."

Matt Benson, a spokesman for the Governor, said the Executive Board of Clemency and the selection committee charged with selecting candidates for the vacant seats acted fully within the law.

Benson said the allegations were nothing more than an attempt to delay justice for the family of Lopez' victim.

Lopez' attorneys originally planned to argue before the board that their client's sentence should be commuted to life without parole because of inadequate legal counsel during his trials and initial appeals.