A convicted murderer in Arizona gasped and snorted for more than 90 minutes after a lethal injection Wednesday, his attorneys and witnesses said, dying in a botched execution that prompted the governor to order an investigation and the state Supreme Court to mandate that the materials used in the procedure be preserved.
Joseph Rudolph Wood III’s execution almost certainly will reinvigorate the national debate over the death penalty. He received an injection at 1:52 p.m. at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. The execution became so prolonged that reporters witnessing the execution counted several hundred of his wheezes before he was finally declared dead at 3:49 p.m. — nearly two hours after the procedure began.
The incident comes in a year in which lethal injections had already triggered controversy over botched procedures and secrecy.
Wood had fought without success to get more information about the drugs and the expertise of his executioners. His request, which was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, prompted one prominent appellate judge to call for the return of the firing squad.
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, 55, 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 prolonged death drew an outcry from capital punishment opponents.
“It’s time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement. “Instead of hiding lethal injection under layers of foolish secrecy, these states need to show us where the drugs are [coming] from. Until they can give assurances that the drugs will work as intended, they must stop future executions.”
Megan McCracken of the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law concurred: “We see that when the state is allowed to carry out an execution with an experimental drug combination without scrutiny and oversight, the consequences are absolutely horrific.”
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.
Among the witnesses were the victims’ family.
“This man conducted a horrific murder, and you guys are going, ‘Let’s worry about the drugs,’” Richard Brown, Debra Dietz’s brother-in-law, told reporters. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet, why didn’t we give him Drano?”
Carcamo reported from Tucson, Pearce and Srikrishnan from Los Angeles.