Arizona Department of Corrections / Handout via Reuters

Arizona inmate dies two hours after execution begins

Governor orders investigation, but says death was 'lawful;' lawyers said he was 'gasping and snorting' for over an hour

A convicted murderer who was sentenced to death died nearly two hours after his execution by lethal injection began Wednesday, Arizona officials said. The state’s Gov. Jan Brewer ordered an investigation, but issued a statement saying Joseph Rudolph Wood was executed in a "lawful manner" and apparently "did not suffer."

The execution took place amid increased scrutiny over the administering of lethal injections in the United States after several controversial incidents in which new combinations of drugs have resulted in prolonged or botched executions.

Attorney General Tom Horne's office said Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., one hour and 57 minutes after the execution began.

Wood's lawyers filed an emergency appeal in federal court during the execution, demanding that it be stopped. The appeal said Wood was "gasping and snorting for more than an hour."

The Arizona Department of Corrections had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Opponents of the death penalty quickly called the execution "cruel and unusual punishment." 

"Today the state of Arizona broke the Eighth Amendment, the First Amendment, and the bounds of basic decency," Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement emailed to the press. 

“Joseph Wood suffered cruel and unusual punishment when he was apparently left conscious long after the drugs were administered. In its rush to put Mr. Wood to death in secret, Arizona ignored the dire and clear warnings from the botched executions of Oklahoma and Ohio.”

Stubbs's comments refer to the execution of Clayton Lockett, 38, in April and Dennis McGuire, 58, in January. Both died more than 20 minutes after executioners administered lethal injections. Lockett reportedly writhed in pain after his injection.

The cocktail of lethal drugs used in McGuire's execution was the same as that used in Wood's execution Wednesday, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. 

"The combination of drugs used in putting Wood to death — an agonizing, two-hour ordeal — has been used only once before, earlier this year in Ohio, resulting in another botched execution," said coalition director Diann Rust-Tierney.

Arizona Gov. Brewer released a statement saying, “I am concerned by the length of time it took for the administered drug protocol to complete the lawful execution of the convicted double murderer, Joseph Wood. While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process.”

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

The Arizona Supreme Court had temporarily halted Wood's execution scheduled for Wednesday morning, but then rejected the appeal and said the death sentence could be carried out.

The appeal focused on arguments that Wood received inadequate legal representation at his sentencing, along with a challenge about the secrecy of the drug cocktail being used in the execution.

Lawyers for death row inmates have complained that death-penalty states are refusing to openly say where they obtain drug ingredients used in the procedure. Pharmaceutical firms in Europe and the U.S. have increasingly refused to sell drugs for carrying out executions. As a result, prison authorities have turned to semi-licensed compound pharmacies to supply the drugs, without stating which firms are being used.

A common denominator for three lengthy executions this year is midazolam, a sedative commonly known as Versed, which is often given to patients prior to surgery, according to the Associated Press. 

Midazolam's side effects can include serious breathing problems and cardiac arrest. Warning labels that accompany the drug say monitoring is required in case there is a need to intervene with life-saving medical treatment. Overdoses can result in a slow heart rate. A normal dose is usually less than 5 milligrams.

Wood, the Arizona inmate, was sentenced to death for the 1989 killing of Debra Dietz and her father, Eugene, at the family's automotive shop in Tucson.

Wood and Dietz had a tumultuous relationship in which he periodically assaulted her. Dietz had tried to end their relationship and got an order of protection against Wood.

On the day of the shooting, Wood went to the auto shop and waited for Dietz's father, who disapproved of his daughter's relationship with Wood, to get off the phone. Once the father hung up, Wood pulled out a revolver, shot him in the chest and then smiled.

He then turned his attention to Debra Dietz, who was trying to telephone for help. Wood grabbed her by the neck and put his gun to her chest. She pleaded with him to spare her life. An employee heard Wood say, "I told you I was going to do it. I have to kill you." He then called her an expletive and fired two shots into her chest. 

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press 

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