With Arizona prison officials set to secure the necessary drug and druggist to proceed with executions, questions have been raised about how many of the 116 inmates on death row could have their death penalty sentences converted to life in prison due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the proper review of such sentences.
At least five cases involving Arizona death row inmates have come under review for constitutional errors that were made over a 15-year period by the Arizona Supreme Court. The supreme court automatically reviews death penalty cases.
One such inmate is Christopher John Spreitz, who was convicted by a Pima County jury in 1994 of the May 1989 murder of Ruby Reid, 39. Reid died of blunt-force trauma to the head, and also had a broken jaw, several broken ribs, and head lacerations.
Spreitz, then 22, confessed to the murder, telling investigators he became upset when Reid declined to have sex with him. After sexually assaulting Reid he struck her in the head with a rock and left her in the desert. Her decomposing body was found a few days later by the Tucson Police Department.
At sentencing, the trial judge noted that any issues Spreitz had with alcohol and cocaine did not impair his “ability and capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct” the night of the murder. The judge also noted any mitigating factors in Spreitz’s favor were outweighed by the “especially cruel” circumstances of Reid’s death.
In 1997, the Arizona Supreme Court made note of Spreitz’s substance abuse issues but affirmed, or upheld, his conviction and sentence. That decision cleared the way for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to request an execution warrant, which was granted in April 2002 with an execution date of June 5, 2002.
A federal judge, however, put the execution on hold just weeks before Spreitz was to die by lethal injection. It then took the U.S. District Court until May 2009 to review Spreitz’s case, which ended with the death penalty being affirmed once again.
Spreitz, now 54, appealed the federal court decision, resulting in yet another stay of his death sentence. For nearly a decade Spreitz’s case sat at the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
Then in March 2019, the Ninth Circuit reversed the 2009 decision, finding that the Arizona Supreme Court review of Spreitz’s sentence resulted in a constitutional error because the justices had required Spreitz to show a causal nexus between his mitigating evidence and the criminal offense.
The Ninth Circuit ruling would have normally triggered a 120-day clock for Attorney General Mark Brnovich to pursue a remedy of the error, either through a new review by the Arizona Supreme Court or an order vacating the death penalty and replacing it with a lesser sentence.
However, the state challenged the ruling by filing a petition for review to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state’s petition was denied earlier this year, and as a result the 120-day clock to address Spreitz’s sentencing began ticking Aug. 18.
On Aug. 19, Brnovich’s office filed a motion asking the Arizona Supreme Court to undertake a new review of Spreitz’s sentence. This time the justices must consider whether Spreitz’s substance abuse was a mitigating factor “sufficiently substantial to warrant leniency in light of the existing aggravation.”
If leniency is warranted, justices must convert the death penalty sentence to a life sentence. But if mitigation factors do not warrant leniency then “the supreme court shall affirm the death sentence,” according to the motion. And that could lead to Spreitz becoming the subject of a new execution warrant.
Arizona’s last execution occurred in 2014. As of Sept. 30, 116 of the state’s 38,894 in-custody prisoners were on death row. Twenty of those have exhausted all possible appeals.
Earlier this year Gov. Doug Ducey instructed ADC Director David Shinn to secure Pentobarbital, the preferred drug for lethal injection, and locate a compounding pharmacist who can legally turn the solid drug into an injectable form.
This week Shinn announced his department is in the process of obtaining the drug. ADC has also found the required compounding pharmacist, the director said. The announcement made no mention as to when executions may resume.
In the meantime, Spreitz’s attorneys from the Pima County Public Defender’s Office have asked the Arizona Supreme Court to reject the state’s motion for a new review. Instead they want the case back to the Pima County Superior Court for resentencing.
“Law and science have evolved in the last quarter century to such an extent that an evidentiary hearing is necessary to develop facts specific to Spreitz,” the appellate attorneys argued.
Additional legal briefings are due to the court by Nov. 12. A decision isn’t expected until early next year.