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FLORENCE, Ariz. -- Arizona executed its fourth death-row inmate this year and the first in which witnesses were allowed to see more of the process leading up to the administration of the lethal drugs via IV.
Samuel Villegas Lopez, 49, was pronounced sedated at 10:12 a.m. and dead at 10:37 a.m. Wednesday, 29 minutes after the execution process began.
Lopez spent 25 years on death row after he was convicted for the brutal rape and murder of a 59-year-old Phoenix woman in 1986. He was sentenced to death the next year.
“Almost 26 years later, justice has been served for the family of Essie Holmes," said Attorney General Tom Horne in a statement emailed to the media. "Now that Samuel Villegas Lopez has paid the penalty for his terrible crime, it is my hope that his victims and their families will find some peace that justice has been carried out."
Horne said Lopez stabbed Holmes' 23 times and that her apartment revealed a "terrible and prolonged" struggle.
Wednesday's execution was unique in that up until now, execution witnesses, including members of the media and victims' families, did not see the inmate until after the IV had been inserted and he had been covered up to his neck with a sheet.
With Lopez, the Department of Corrections voluntarily allowed witnesses to see more of the preparation process, including the insertion of catheters. The process was shown via closed-circut television on two small flat-screens in the witness room.
3TV reporter Stacey Delikat was one of the witnesses. She said the procedure was very clinical and that Lopez showed virtually no emotion, not even turning to to look at those who had come to watch him die.
Lopez winced briefly as IVs were inserted into each of his arms. Only one IV is used in the for the lethal injection, but protocol is to insert a second as a back-up.
During the preparation, Lopez spoke up, saying "I have a question for the medical technicians, are these the only IV's that will be inserted?"
After the catheters were inserted the curtain was opened and the television monitors were turned off.
When asked if he had any last words, Lopez replied, "No, I do not."
Nine members of the family of Estefana "Essie" Holmes, Lopez' victim, were on hand to witness his death.
Shortly after the execution, the family held a news conference.
"Hopefully with this event here today, Tefo's soul and spirit will now finally rest in peace," Holmes' brother Victor Arguijo said. He and three other family members traveled from Texas to be witnesses.
"In these cases there are no winners, especially for the victim's family, nor the condemned's family, only justice," he said.
None of Lopez' relatives were in attendance.
For his last meal, Lopez had a red chile con carne burrito, a green chile con carne burrito, Spanish rice, a jalepeño, an avocado, cottage cheese, french fires, a 20-ounce Coke, vanilla ice cream and chopped pineapple.
Hopes for clemency or a stay
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a stay of execution for Lopez, clearing the way for Wednesday procedure. Lopez' lawyers argued that his trial lawyers were incompetent and failed to introduce evidence regarding his troubled childhood.
Last month, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Lopez less than 24 hours before he was slated to be put to death. His lawyers cited potential issues with Arizona's clemency board, saying new members had not been properly trained.
On June 22, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency voted unanimously to deny a death-row inmate's final plea for mercy.
In another last-ditch attempt to get another delay or even commutation to life, Lopez' lawyers asked the state Supreme Court to hold off on the execution until Arizona had a new governor, claiming Gov. Jan Brewer made it impossible for Lopez to get a fair hearing by appointing "political cronies" who would always uphold a death sentence to the clemency board. Brewer categorically denied that allegation.
Lopez longtime defense attorney Kelley Henry released this statement:
"Today, we are deeply saddened by the execution of our client, Sammy Lopez. Sammy’s final hours were spent with members of his legal team. He asked us to thank all of those who worked on his behalf.
We are also deeply troubled that the State of Arizona executed a man today who was denied due process at every level. This broken process began at trial where untrained attorneys failed to raise crucial evidence about Sammy’s horrific and abusive family history. It continued up until this week as the courts refused to hear the merits of Sammy’s claims because of procedural barriers. If we are going to have the death penalty, we should ensure that the process, at the very least, is fair and that it follows the rule of law. Sadly, that did not happen in this case."
The death penalty in Arizona
Arizona has executes a total of 95 inmates, including Lopez, since 1910.
There was a period of three decades -- April 1962 to April 1992 -- during which no executions were performed in Arizona. During that time, the Legislature rewrote Arizona's law to comply with a 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which dealt with how the death penalty is applied.
Arizona's revised law went into effect in 1979, and convicts could once again be sentenced to death. The first execution after that took place on April 6, 1992.
Since the death penalty's reinstatement, the Grand Canyon State as executed 31 inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Lopez is No. 32.
Arizona used to use lethal gas as its method execution. Voters approved the use of lethal injection in 1992.
The issue of lethal injection has been contentious in recent years with lawyers arguing over the source of the drugs used.
For years, the state used a three-drug cocktail. With the execution of Robert Henry Moormann in February, it switched to a method employing a single drug.
The Arizona Department of Corrections says there are 126 inmates, three of them women, currently on death row. ADOC says 12 years is the amount of time an average death-row inmate spends waiting for his sentence to be carried out.
Two more death-row inmates are nearing the end of the appeals process and could be executed later this year.