The “botched” execution of an Arizona inmate who repeatedly gasped and snorted during a near-two-hour death has reignited debate over capital punishment in the U.S. and the use of semi-tested and secretly obtained lethal drug ingredients.
During the protracted death of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood, 55, on Wednesday, his lawyers had time to file an emergency appeal. "He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour," Wood's lawyers wrote in a legal filing demanding that the courts stop it. "He is still alive."
The Arizona Supreme Court also called an impromptu hearing while the procedure was ongoing, but learned of the inmate’s death during the discussions.
Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m. local time — one hour and 57 minutes after the lethal injection drugs were administered.
It is the third prolonged execution in the U.S. this year. In January in Ohio, an inmate gasped in similar fashion for nearly a half hour. And in Oklahoma, an inmate died of a heart attack in April, minutes after prison officials halted his execution because the drugs were not being properly administered.
The U.K.-based rights group Reprieve called the execution “botched” and pointed out that the drugs used in Wednesday’s execution were midazolam and hydromorphone, the same combination used in the aforementioned Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire, who took more than 25 minutes to die.
An official state investigation into what potentially went wrong was launched shortly after Wood finally succumbed to the lethal mix. But critics of the death penalty accused Arizona authorities of ignoring the warning signs from earlier executions.
“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,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement emailed to the press on Wednesday.
Maya Foe of Reprieve said: “The State of Arizona had every reason to believe that this procedure would not go smoothly. Manufacturers and medics have long protested the abuse of medicines (which are designed to save lives) in executions designed to end them. How many more botched executions must we witness before states finally take heed?”
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.
State to review execution
Wood’s execution went ahead despite a last-ditch legal bid for a stay.
The appeal focused on arguments that Wood received inadequate legal representation at his sentencing, as well as on a challenge about the secrecy of the drug cocktail being used in the execution.
Indeed, 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 procedure began with Wood strapped to a gurney at 1:52 p.m.
An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution said Wood started gasping shortly after a sedative and a painkiller were injected into his veins. He gasped more than 600 times over the next hour and a half. During the gasps, his jaw dropped and his chest expanded and contracted.
The account was in contrast to that of the Arizona attorney general's spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, who witnessed the execution, and said Wood "went to sleep and looked to be snoring."
"This was my first execution, and I was surprised by how peaceful it was," Grisham said in an email. "There was absolutely no snorting or gasping for air."
An administrator checked on Wood a half dozen times. Wood finally stopped breathing more than 90 minutes into the procedure. He was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.
"Throughout this execution, I conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress," said state Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan.
Nonetheless, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said she was ordering a review of the state's execution process, saying she was concerned by how long it took for the administered drug protocol to kill Wood.
“While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process,” Brewer said.
Dale Baich, one of Wood’s defense lawyers, said the execution should have taken 10 minutes.
"Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution," Baich said.
Wood's execution was Arizona's third since October and the state's 36th since 1992. He was convicted of fatally shooting Debra Dietz and her father, 55-year-old Gene Dietz, at their auto repair shop in Tucson in 1989.
Wood and Debra Dietz had a tumultuous relationship during which he repeatedly assaulted her. She tried to end their relationship and got an order of protection against him.
On the day of the shooting, Wood went to the auto shop and waited for Gene Dietz, 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 toward 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 him 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 in her chest.
Family members of Wood's victims said they had no problems with the way the execution was carried out.
"This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, 'Let's worry about the drugs,'" said Richard Brown, the brother-in-law of Debra Dietz. "Why didn't they give him a bullet, why didn't we give him Drano?"
Wood looked at the family members as he delivered his final words, saying he was thankful for Jesus Christ as his savior.
"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," Wood said.
Al Jazeera and wire services