Jun 27, 2012 2:31 PM
FLORENCE, Ariz. (AP) - An Arizona inmate was put to death Wednesday for a 1986 brutal rape and killing, in the state's first execution allowing witnesses to watch prison officials inject a lethal drug into a prisoner.
Samuel Villegas Lopez, 49, was executed at the state prison in Florence, three days before his 50th birthday. About 10 of the victim's family members were there.
Until Wednesday, news media and victims' family members entered the prison's death chamber after the inmate had been injected and covered with a sheet up to his chest or neck. Arizona opened the process after a federal judge recently sided with The Associated Press and other news organizations seeking full viewing access to lethal injections.
Lopez was the state's fourth death-row inmate executed this year. Of the 125 inmates still on Arizona's death row, only five have been there longer than him.
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.
He lost his last appeal Tuesday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to delay his execution.
Another inmate, Daniel Wayne Cook, is set to be executed Aug. 8 for the rape and killing of a man and a 16-year-old boy in Lake Havasu City in 1987.
Two more condemned prisoners whose appeals are nearing their end could be executed by the end of the year, putting Arizona on pace to match its busiest year for executions and to become one of the nation's busiest death-penalty states.
On Oct. 30, 1986, police found the half-naked body of 59-year-old Estafana Holmes in her small Phoenix apartment.
The petite woman had three major stab wounds to her head, one on her face, and 23 in her left breast and upper chest. She had been blindfolded and gagged with her own clothing, and her throat had been slit. Blood was splattered on walls in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.
Semen found on her body matched Lopez's after he was arrested in a separate rape less than a week later.
The state Supreme Court in 1993 upheld Lopez's death sentence, saying the state of Holmes' apartment and her body showed a "terrific struggle for life" and calling the killing a "grisly and ultimately fatal nightmare."
Lopez, who was 24 at the time, did not know Holmes, a poor seamstress and grandmother who lived alone and was described by her family as hardworking, loving and deeply religious.
Arizona's governor overhauled the clemency board in April, appointing three new people to the five-member board in what defense attorneys said was an obvious effort to place "political cronies" on the board who'll never recommend lessening a death-row inmate's sentence to life in prison.
Brewer has denied that allegation through spokesman Matt Benson, who has said the board was changed to bring fresh insight to the process.
Lopez's attorneys say board members were improperly appointed and didn't have the authority to consider death-penalty cases because of open-meetings violations, statements to members of the media that showed prejudice, and other factors.
At Lopez's clemency board hearing Friday, board members called him the "worst of the worst" and said the brutality of his crime and Holmes' heartbroken family members held great sway with them.
They voted unanimously against recommending that Lopez's sentence be reduced to life in prison or that it be delayed in any way.
Board Chairman Jesse Hernandez denied being Brewer's "political crony," saying he came into the meeting with an open mind.
During the hearing, defense attorney Kelley Henry didn't dispute Lopez's guilt, but focused on the fact that his attorneys at trial failed to present a judge with any evidence that Lopez had a horrific childhood - a mitigating factor that could have gotten him a sentence of life in prison rather than the death penalty.
A neuropsychiatrist testified that Lopez's childhood was filled with poverty, neglect, abuse and periods of homelessness during which he often had to sleep in cemeteries.
He said Lopez's father was a drunk who abused his wife and children before he left the family and drank himself to death. Lopez's mother kicked her children out of the house after marrying another man who had children of his own.
Lopez dropped out of school in the ninth grade and began sniffing paint, an addiction that continued into his adulthood.
In an affidavit provided to the board, Lopez wrote that he has no memory of the crime because he had been spending so much time sniffing paint that he would forget entire days.
"What happened to Ms. Holmes was so horrible and so wrong," he wrote. "I've always been sorry for what she went through that night and for what her family has gone through ever since."
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.
"Let me ask you, Mr. Lopez, did our sister plead for her life as you stabbed her two dozen times?" said Sarah Bryant, one of Holmes' sisters. "Did she beg you not to rape her? Did she plead with you to spare her life as you almost decapitated her? Did she?
"Nothing will bring her back, but you should pay for it," she said.