Arizona Says Inmate Who Died After Nearly Two-Hour Execution Did Not Suffer

A state spokesperson says she was surprised by how “peaceful” the execution appeared.

The 'death chamber' at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas, February 29, 2000. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
July 23, 2014, 3:10 p.m.

Ari­zona on Wed­nes­day ap­peared to botch the ex­e­cu­tion of a death-row in­mate who was pro­nounced dead nearly two hours after the state in­jec­ted a se­cret­ive batch of leth­al drugs in­to his body.

Joseph Wood’s pro­longed death comes on the heels of a flurry of court battles con­cern­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity of the state’s re­fus­al to dis­close the iden­tity of the sup­pli­er of its leth­al drugs, and the case echoes a sim­il­arly botched ex­e­cu­tion in Ok­lahoma just months ago.

The at­tor­neys for the con­victed Ari­zona mur­der­er filed an emer­gency ap­peal to halt his ex­e­cu­tion after he re­portedly re­mained alive and con­scious more than an hour after the state began the ex­e­cu­tion.

But the mo­tion was too late, and Wood was pro­nounced dead al­most ex­actly two hours after the state ad­min­istered the first of a two-drug leth­al cock­tail in­to his veins.

Wood has “been gasp­ing and snort­ing for more than an hour,” his at­tor­neys wrote in their emer­gency pe­ti­tion to the Ari­zona fed­er­al court.

When asked if she agreed with re­ports from nu­mer­ous journ­al­ist eye­wit­nesses that Wood was gasp­ing dur­ing his ex­e­cu­tion, Stephanie Grisham, a spokes­wo­man for Ari­zona At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Tom Horne, said “ab­so­lutely not.”

“I haven’t giv­en a state­ment but the claims be­ing made by the me­dia wit­nesses and de­fense at­tor­neys is not ac­cur­ate in my opin­ion,” she told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an email. “He went to sleep, and looked to be snor­ing. This was my first ex­e­cu­tion and I was sur­prised by how peace­ful it was. There was ab­so­lutely no snort­ing or gasp­ing for air.”

Ari­zona Gov. Jan Brew­er an­nounced Wed­nes­day even­ing that she had asked her state’s De­part­ment of Cor­rec­tions to “con­duct a full re­view” of its ex­e­cu­tion pro­cess. While not­ing con­cern for the length of time it took for Wood’s death to be called, Brew­er struck a largely de­fens­ive tone.

“Wood died in a law­ful man­ner and by eye­wit­ness and med­ic­al ac­counts he did not suf­fer,” Brew­er, a Re­pub­lic­an, said in a state­ment. “This is in stark com­par­is­on to the grue­some, vi­cious suf­fer­ing that he in­flic­ted on his two vic­tims—and the life­time of suf­fer­ing he has caused their fam­ily.”

Oth­er state of­fi­cials in the at­tor­ney gen­er­al’s of­fice said they be­lieved Wood had not suffered. Mi­chael Kiefer, an eye­wit­ness re­port­er for The Ari­zona Re­pub­lic, said he coun­ted 660 gasps taken by Wood be­fore he slipped in­to un­con­scious­ness.

“We will re­new our ef­forts to get in­form­a­tion about the man­u­fac­turer of drugs as well as how Ari­zona came up with the ex­per­i­ment­al for­mula of drugs it used today,” Wood’s at­tor­ney, Dale Baich, said in a state­ment. “Ari­zona ap­pears to have joined sev­er­al oth­er states who have been re­spons­ible for an en­tirely pre­vent­able hor­ror—a bungled ex­e­cu­tion. The pub­lic should hold its of­fi­cials re­spons­ible and de­mand to make this pro­cess more trans­par­ent.”

Richard Di­eter, the dir­ect­or of the Death Pen­alty In­form­a­tion Cen­ter, flatly re­jec­ted the sug­ges­tion that Wood did not suf­fer, and cast blame on Ari­zona for not ex­er­cising more cau­tion in its pro­tocol giv­en re­cent prob­lems with leth­al drugs ob­tained from uniden­ti­fied man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“The facts speak for them­selves,” Di­eter said Wed­nes­day night. “I don’t think Ari­zona ever in­ten­ded to put someone on a gurney for two hours squirm­ing and grunt­ing.”

Di­eter ad­ded that Ari­zona had “ample warn­ing” that the drugs used in its ex­e­cu­tion could prove prob­lem­at­ic, es­pe­cially giv­en the re­cent con­tro­versy in Ok­lahoma. The par­tic­u­lar com­bin­a­tion of drugs used Wed­nes­day night have only been used in an ex­e­cu­tion once be­fore in Ohio, where Den­nis McGuire re­portedly con­vulsed and gasped for 25 minutes be­fore be­ing pro­nounced dead.

“This is neg­li­gence, mal­prac­tice, un­pre­pared­ness,” Di­eter said. “Secrecy is a re­cipe for dis­aster; it is a re­cipe for closed-minded­ness.”

Wood’s ex­e­cu­tion had been in leg­al limbo for days, as a num­ber of courts is­sued stays on his ex­e­cu­tion that were either over­turned or later re­can­ted. Wood had at­temp­ted to stave off his death sen­tence by ar­guing that Ari­zona was vi­ol­at­ing his First Amend­ment right to know the iden­tity of the sup­pli­er of the state’s two-drug leth­al in­jec­tion cock­tail.

A fed­er­al Ap­peals Court had ruled in Wood’s fa­vor be­fore the Su­preme Court denied the stay Tues­day.

The de­tails of Wood’s case closely re­semble those of an Ok­lahoma in­mate whose ex­e­cu­tion was botched in April. Clayton Lock­ett was de­clared un­con­scious 10 minutes after be­ing in­jec­ted with the first dose of a new, un­tested three-drug cock­tail, whose sup­pli­er was also shrouded in secrecy. He was pro­nounced dead of heart fail­ure 43 minutes after his ex­e­cu­tion began.

Ari­zona of­fi­cials said they planned to use a com­bin­a­tion of the drugs midazolam and hy­dro­morphone to ex­ecute Wood, but they re­fused to dis­close the iden­tity of the man­u­fac­tur­ers of those drugs or the qual­i­fic­a­tions of those who would ad­min­is­ter them.

Ari­zona and Ok­lahoma rep­res­ent a dwind­ling num­ber of act­ive death-pen­alty states that have been scram­bling in re­cent years to pro­cure the drugs ne­ces­sary to carry out death sen­tences, amid boy­cotts from European man­u­fac­tur­ers and reti­cence from li­censed phys­i­cians. Ok­lahoma’s botched at­tempt forced the state to tem­por­ar­ily halt its ex­e­cu­tions and or­der a re­view of its death-pen­alty pro­ced­ures.

Wood was sen­tenced to death for the 1989 shoot­ing of his girl­friend and her fath­er.

Read the full pe­ti­tion from Wood’s law­yers here:

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