By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A convicted murderer who challenged the fairness of Arizona's clemency board and won a temporary reprieve was executed by lethal injection on Wednesday for raping, beating and stabbing a woman to death in 1986.
Samuel Villegas Lopez, 49, was executed at the state prison complex in Florence, about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix. The execution began at 10:08 a.m. local time and he was pronounced dead at 10:37 a.m., state officials said.
Lopez was sentenced to death in 1987 for raping 59-year-old Estafana Holmes and stabbing her to death in a violent, drawn-out assault at her Phoenix apartment.
Authorities found her body with her eyes blindfolded with her pajama pants and her mouth stuffed tightly with a lace scarf. She was naked from the waist down and had been stabbed 23 times in the chest and three times in the abdomen.
During questioning several days later on an unrelated matter, court records show that Lopez asked about a woman who had been stabbed and had her throat slashed. Information about the victim's throat being cut had not been publicly released by police.
His fingerprints and bodily fluids also matched those found at the scene, records show. He was convicted of first-degree murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and burglary.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said: "Almost 26 years later, justice has been served for the family of Essie Holmes."
"The judge who sentenced Lopez to death found that the crime was especially heinous, cruel and depraved, and among the worst he had ever seen," Horne said in a statement.
"Now that Samuel Villegas Lopez has paid the penalty for his terrible crime, it is my hope that his victims and their families will find some peace that justice has been carried out," he added.
Lopez won a temporary reprieve on May 15 after successfully arguing that he would not get a fair hearing from the state Board of Executive Clemency as some members had not completed their training.
The Arizona Supreme Court ordered a temporary stay so that the board members could complete a mandatory four-week training course.
Lopez then sought a second stay arguing that Republican Governor Jan Brewer had appointed "political cronies" to the board, making a fair hearing impossible, which was rejected by the state Supreme Court.
On Friday, the clemency board unanimously rejected his bid to have his sentence commuted to life in prison or receive a reprieve.
Lopez had no last words. His final meal consisted of one red and one green chili burrito, Spanish rice, jalapeno, avocado, cottage cheese, french fries, vanilla ice cream and pineapple.
He was the fourth Arizona inmate executed this year and the 32nd since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1992.
Twenty-three people have been executed in the United States this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Richard Chang)