/ Modified jun 17, 2019 11:23 a.m.

Capital Punishment; Mayoral Powers; Regina Romero

Understanding the current holding pattern on executions in Arizona.

This week, Arizona 360 explored the time, money and emotional toll associated with capital punishment by hearing from those who have close knowledge of the system. Currently, 116 inmates are sitting on Arizona's death row. As a longtime prosecutor for Pima County, Rick Unklesbay has successfully argued murder cases that resulted in 16 death sentences for defendants. In his new book, Arbitrary Death, Unklesbay revisits nine cases in which his office sought the death penalty. He also delves into why he no longer supports capital punishment, which he also discussed with Lorraine Rivera.

"I've been a prosecutor for 38 years or so, and having worked in the system that long and seeing how these cases proceed, it strikes me that if people really knew what the system was about they would say: 'We don't need this. We have an alternative of natural life,'" Unklesbay said.

According to Unklesbay, inmates spend an average of 20 years on death row, and fees associated with court-appointed attorneys assigned to help them through the lengthy appeals process can total several million dollars.

"At a minimum of a million dollars. But that's really the very low end. And it's more likely that it is $3, $4, $5 million dollars over the course of the appeal," Unklesbay said.

Proceeds from Arbitrary Death benefit Homicide Survivors, Inc., a nonprofit that provides support to the families and loved ones of homicide victims.

More than 20 years ago, an armed robbery at a Pizza Hut in Tucson resulted in the murders of three employees and led prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in the trials of the two suspects. While both suspects were initially sentenced to death, through appeals and a plea deal, Christopher "Bo" Huerstel received a 25-year sentence and Kajornsak "Tom" Prasertphong got life behind bars.

Kathy Weir followed every step of their trials. Her brother, 44-year-old Robert Curry, was one of the victims and manager of the restaurant. Weir described how the drawn-out legal process shaped her view of the death penalty.

"It pretty much consumed my life for eight years," Weir said. She said she took time away from her business to be in court, which hurt her family financially. "I had always put the business first and for the first time in my life the business became secondary."

"The loss of losing someone is horrendous. But what the court system can do to you is even worse. Because it all comes down to the rights of the defendant," Weir said. "It's sad the amount of resources that we put in on the back end for these people as opposed to putting it on the front end to prevent these things from happening."

Executions in Arizona have been in a holding pattern since 2014, when the state put to death Joseph Wood by lethal injection. It took two hours and several injections of the drug for him to die. Michael Kiefer covered the execution and has reported on Arizona's criminal justice system for nearly 20 years. He explained the events that followed Wood's death.

"The litigation began before the execution was even over," Kiefer said. "This sort of was the straw that broke the camel's back. That federal judge had allowed the Arizona Department of Correction a whole lot of leeway in earlier executions and at that point he ordered that everything be analyzed and litigated."

Kiefer also described restrictions placed on the types of drugs that can be used for lethal injections and the legal hurdles that have made it difficult to obtain them.

As voters in the city of Tucson prepare to elect a new mayor this November, Arizona 360 heard from former mayor Tom Volgy to get his take on the powers of the office. Volgy served as mayor from 1987 to 1991. Prior to that, he spent a decade on the City Council.

"There are formal powers for the mayor, which means that he or she is the chief policymaker of the city," Volgy said. "There's also the kind of power that you steal. Which is to make sure that there's appropriate oversight over the administration or the city manager and how the policies are actually being executed. That becomes really ambiguous because the charter is not very clear about the authority that the mayor really has."

Arizona 360 interviewed all four Tucson mayoral candidates who qualified for the ballot. Candidates include Democrats Randi Dorman, Steve Farley and Regina Romero on the primary ballot, one of whom will face independent Ed Ackerley in November's general election. This week, Lorraine Rivera sat down with Regina Romero, who has represented Ward 1 as a city councilwoman since 2007.

Arizona 360
Arizona 360 airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on PBS 6 and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on PBS 6 PLUS. See more from Arizona 360.
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