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Arizona to probe why killer took 2 hours to die after lethal injection

Capital punishment opponents call for moratorium on lethal injections in Arizona after botched execution
Arizona to probe why it took condemned killer two hours to die

A day after the third execution to go awry this year, critics of capital punishment on Thursday called for a thorough investigation into why it took almost two hours for Joseph Rudolph Wood to die in Arizona and also asked for a deeper look at all of the issues surrounding how the death sentence is carried out.

Wood, 55, convicted of a double murder in 1989, was executed by lethal injection and took one hour and 57 minutes to die on Wednesday, raising questions about whether constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment were violated.

Opponents of the death penalty argued that the procedure was botched, while state officials, including Gov. Jan Brewer, insist the execution was lawful. The governor has ordered an internal probe of the events.

The Arizona case is the third this year in which an inmate has taken a long time to die and where witnesses have said the convict appeared to be alive and in pain. Wood snorted and gasped about 660 times before dying, according to Michael Kiefer, a reporter for the Arizona Republic who was one of the witnesses.

States have been scrambling to find new sources of the needed drugs since manufacturers, under pressure from capital punishment opponents, stopped distributing the drugs used for executions. In effect, states have been trying to find new mixtures and protocols to carry out death sentences. The Arizona case used the same drugs that have been used in Ohio, where an inmate in January also appeared to suffer. The third case in Oklahoma involved a three-drug cocktail.

Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said Thursday that Wood’s execution is “at least a tortuous death and needs to be investigated.”

“Arizona bears much responsibility for what happened,” Dieter told the Los Angeles Times. “They did this all in secrecy and are suffering the consequences.”

Dieter, who routinely speaks internationally about capital punishment, said the United States is “embarrassing ourselves with these repeated failures.”

The Supreme Court needs to require states to reveal the sources of drugs used in executions, he said, and they need to have doctors and other trained medical personnel review the process from start to finish.

“Many people around the world are watching what we’re doing,” he added. “If they’re going to continue, they can’t have this failure rate in dealing with human subjects in the way that they are.”

David Kroll, a pharmacologist, wrote in a Forbes.com op-ed that Wood’s execution will “undoubtedly reignite” the national discussion on the civility of capital punishment.

“The problem with the execution lies with attempts by corrections authorities to make the procedure appear swift and medical,” Kroll wrote. “But drug manufacturers have either discontinued production of execution drugs used historically or refuse to sell them to state corrections departments.”

As a result, Kroll wrote, many states have been concocting substitute drug combinations for prisoners. But because the drugs may not work together as intended, prisoners — much like Wood — may “exhibit a response to oxygen starvation” and try to breathe normally, Kroll wrote, prolonging the execution.

“The national societies of nearly all health professions have condemned capital punishment and declared that participation or facilitation of execution is a violation of professional ethics,” Kroll wrote. “The only dissenting profession is pharmacy, which defers to a practitioner’s personal conscience.”

Arizona’s latest execution has led some groups to call for a moratorium on the practice in the state.

“The events surrounding Mr. Wood’s execution clearly signal that Arizona must put a moratorium on executions,” Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, said. “Now we see that our government officials cannot be trusted to take seriously our constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Arizona had clear warnings from Ohio and Oklahoma. Instead of ensuring that a similar outcome was avoided here, our state officials cloaked the plans for Mr. Wood’s death in secrecy. Arizonans should not accept our state’s willingness to abandon one of our most fundamental constitutional obligations.”

In a Thursday editorial the Republic also called for a stay on executions.

“It is not humane to leave a human being, however deserving of death, to gasp for air for two hours before dying, as double-murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood did on Wednesday,” the editorial stated. “A firing squad armed with high-velocity rifles loaded with hollow-point ammunition would be more humane.”

“The prolonged execution and suffering of Joseph Wood was predicted by his attorneys and validated by others,” said Fordham law professor Deborah W. Denno, an expert on lethal injection. “It is one of a pattern of botched executions that has resulted from an unacceptable level of secrecy on the part of the a Department of Corrections. The execution procedure has never been worse and it will continue on until something is done."

Wood's attorneys had fought without success to get more information about the drugs and the expertise of the executioners. The Arizona Supreme Court ordered officials to preserve the remaining drugs used in his execution and the drug labels.

Gov. Jan Brewer ordered the state Department of Corrections to conduct a full review, saying she was “concerned” about the length of time it took Wood to die.

“One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” Brewer 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.”

Wood was sentenced to death in 1991 for the August 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Eugene Dietz, in Tucson.

Wood's last words were to his victims' family, according to an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution: “I take comfort knowing today my pain stops, and I said a prayer that on this or any other day you may find peace in all of your hearts and may God forgive you all.”

It took so long for Wood to die after receiving an injection of midazolam combined with hydromorphone that his attorneys filed emergency appeals to save his life.

“At 1:57 p.m [officials] reported that Mr. Wood was sedated, but at 2:02 he began to breathe,” said the legal filing in federal court from public defender Jon M. Sands. “At 2:03 his mouth moved. Mr. Wood has continued to breathe since that time. He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour. At 3:02 p.m. ... staff rechecked for sedation. He is still alive.”

A Wood attorney also went to the state Supreme Court, which was conducting a hearing by telephone when he was pronounced dead.

The question of whether he suffered divided those who watched the procedure.

Another attorney for Wood, Dale A. Baich, was among them. He said that during the 1 hour and 40 minutes Wood was gasping and snorting, he could not tell whether he was conscious. “There was no sound in the witness room, so we could not hear,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general's office who was also a witness disputed that. “There was no gasping of air. There was snoring,” Stephanie Grisham said. “He just laid there. It was quite peaceful.”

Baich responded: “My observation was that he was gasping and struggling to breathe. I couldn't tell if he was snoring. Even if he was snoring, it took two hours for him to die?”

Baich called for an independent investigation.

Wood's execution revived memories of those in Ohio and Oklahoma this year.

Ohio used the same drug combination to execute Dennis McGuire in January. Witnesses said that “McGuire started struggling and gasping loudly for air, making snorting and choking sounds which lasted for at least 10 minutes, with his chest heaving and his fist clenched.” Ohio executions are on hold while a federal court reviews the state's execution protocol.

Then, in April, Oklahoma murderer Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after his execution began — and after the state had called off his execution as he writhed and gasped. Details about the lethal drugs and those who administer them are kept secret in many states. Wood had launched a 1st Amendment attack on that veil of secrecy, arguing that the public has a right to know more about the state's gravest responsibility.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, halting his execution with a preliminary injunction Saturday. The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the injunction Tuesday. Arizona's state Supreme Court also allowed the execution to go ahead.

The chief judge of the 9th Circuit, Alex Kozinski, had supported Wood's execution but suggested that lethal drugs should be replaced with something more efficient, such as firing squads.

The latest botched execution could force the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the issue. Six years ago, the court rejected a “cruel and unusual punishment” challenge to lethal injections in a Kentucky case but left the door open for future challenges.

Follow @theCindyCarcamo and @latimesmuskal for national news.

Times statff writers Matt Pearce in Los Angeles and Rebecca Bratek in Washington, D.C. contributed to this story.

 

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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