Witnesses were able to see prison officials inject a lethal drug into a condemned inmate for the first time in Arizona history Wednesday, when the state executed its fourth prisoner of the year. With about ten of the victim’s family members present, forty-nine-year-old Samuel Villegas Lopez was executed at the state prison in Florence, three days before his 50th birthday. Lopez was on death row for the brutal rape and killing of a 59-year-old Phoenix woman in 1986. Of the 126 inmates on Arizona’s death row, only five had been there longer than Lopez. Until his execution, news media and victims’ family members entered the death chamber at the state prison after the inmate had been injected and covered with a sheet up to his chest or neck. Arizona opened the execution process after a federal judge recently sided with The Associated Press and other news organizations to allow witnesses full viewing access to lethal injections.
Lopez has lost a number of last-minute efforts to avoid the death penalty, including a request with the Arizona Supreme Court to delay his execution until Arizona has a new governor, arguing Gov. Jan Brewer and the state’s clemency board were prejudiced against him. His final appeal was denied late Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court clearing the way for this morning’s execution.
Lopez was convicted in 1987 of brutally raping and murdering Estefana Holmes in her Phoenix apartment. On Friday, the Arizona Supreme Court also denied a stay, and Arizona’s Board of Executive Clemency denied a commutation bid. His execution made history in that it was the first in which witnesses were able to watch, via closed-circuit TV, the insertion of the catheters that deliver the fatal drug pentobarbital. Previously, witnesses only saw the prisoner after the catheters had been inserted.
Attorneys for inmates in prior executions condemned the practice of inserting catheters into the prisoners’ groins. Officials said the executioners had found it difficult to find suitable veins in the arms and legs. Now witnesses can see the actual injection, something that defense attorneys sought in an effort to ensure inmates don’t experience any unnecessary pain.
Nearly a dozen of Holmes’ family members pleaded with board members to allow the execution to proceed, describing how her murder left them incapacitated by grief.
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