TUCSON – Since 1910, more than 100 inmates have been put to death in Arizona, including a woman. The death penalty is controversial but, here in Arizona, it’s the law.
November 2000, Ron Geuder had just witnessed the execution of Don Miller, the man who shot his daughter in the head five times. The murder had been at the request of Anthony Luna, the father of Jenny Geuder’s child.
Her father said, “We miss Jenny very much, and we know this isn’t going to bring Jenny back, and this certainly is not bringing closure to our family. It brought closure to Don Miller.”
Don Miller spent 8 years on death row. He said he wanted to die. After the first appeal, he waived his rights to appeals after that.
Sandi Geuder chose not to witness the execution.
“I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction that as a mom I’m there,” said Sandi Gueder.
Rick Unklesbay has been a prosecutor in Pima County for over three decades. He wrote a book “Arbitrary Death” A prosecutor’s perspective on the death penalty.
The book examines the monetary and emotional cost of capital punishment.
Unklesbay prosecuted Miller’s case and also witnessed the execution.
“We have people in Pima County that have been on Death Row since 1981,” he added.
He has tried over 100 first degree murder cases. 20 were death penalty cases.
“If people knew how much the death penalty costs, what the delays were, how often they get reversed for technical reasons,” said Unklesbay. “People may have a different opinion whether they support it.”
The book he’s written this book profiled some of Tucson’s most brutal murders.
“The reason for the book was to give people an idea of how the system works and the frailties of it.”
Unklesbay says the cost per case runs in the millions of dollars because of the appeals process.
“Death row inmates are represented at least by one attorney, sometimes two throughout the dependency of their 20-25 year appeals process,” said Unklesbay.
Take the case of Joe Lambright in 1980. He and two others kidnapped Sandy Owen. She was raped and repeatedly stabbed, her body left in the desert. Her remains were found a year later. Lambright was arrested in Texas. He was convicted and sentenced to die.
Thirty years later, “The ninth circuit court of appeals decided he should have a new sentencing trial,” said Unklesbay.
So in 2014, an older and frail looking Lambright went to trial before a jury. They couldn’t decide. It was a hung jury.
“It was so remote to them everything was old, all the witnesses had died in the meantime,” said Unklesbay.
Lambright was given life in prison and is now appealing that decision.
Scott Clabourne was convicted of brutally murdering U of A student Laura Webster the same year.
“He’s been convicted on death row for 38 years and he’s still appealing his sentence and conviction,” said Unklesbay.
Then there’s James Wallace in 1984. He viciously attacked and killed his ex-girlfriend and her two children. He told detectives he wanted to die, there was no trial and he was sentenced to death. The appeals process kicked in and every time it was the same story
“We spent 27 years, an untold amount of money. He was sentenced to death four different times,” said Unklesbay.
Then in 2012, the Arizona Supreme Court said it just didn’t meet the death penalty statues.
“These were horrible, horrible murders and I often tell people, ” said Unklesbay, “if James Wallace doesn’t belong on death row, I don’t know who does.”
Ron and Sandi Gueder are at ease since Don Miller was put to death for the murder of their daughter, but now they are dealing with Anthony Luna, the father of their grandchild. Even though he masterminded the murder, he pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty. He’s now up for parole, and once a year they participate in the hearing.
“It’s reliving it, and it’s writing a letter that just opens up that scab again. And explaining why he shouldn’t get out,” said Sandi Gueder.
Sandi Gueder has her own opinion of the death penalty.
“I still think there should be a time limit, only X number of appeals and that’s it. Because they didn’t give our loved one a chance to appeal what happened to them,” she added.
Unklesbay said there hasn’t been an execution in the last five years in Arizona. He said that’s because of the litigation about the drugs used to carry out the death penalty.
He added, a life sentence also costs money because taxpayers are responsible for feeding and clothing inmates for years, but the inmates get one appeal and that’s all.
The proceeds of Unklesbay’s book, Arbitrary Death, go entirely to help fund Homicide Survivors.