Drawn-out Arizona execution using new drug combination raises more concerns

PHOENIX — The state of Arizona executed Joseph Wood on Wednesday. It took him nearly two hours to die after his veins were injected with a novel combination of two drugs.

Journalists in attendance said it was hard to watch the convicted murderer die. They were expecting the execution to be over swiftly, but it dragged on and on.

Wood’s last breaths were like “a fish on shore gulping for air,” said reporter Troy Hayden.

His slow death is fueling a debate that has kicked up as states look for new drug alternatives for lethal injections.

Did the execution with the new combination amount to “cruel and unusual punishment” and violate his constitutional rights?

It did, say Wood’s lawyers. One of them called it “bungled” and “botched.”

The state of Arizona disagrees.

The state corrections department followed protocol in Wood’s execution, it said in a statement. It double-checked his “deep sedation” seven times between the time the execution procedure began at 1:52 p.m. local time and the time he was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m.

Lawyers rush to save him

Those seven checks were grueling for Wood’s lawyers.

As the clock ticked, they filed an emergency motion to stop the execution and save Wood’s life. He was “gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” they said.

“He is still alive,” the motion read. “This execution has violated Mr. Wood’s Eighth Amendment right to be executed in the absence of cruel and unusual punishment.”

One of the lawyers, Dale Baich, said the room was silent as Wood gasped. “I have witnessed 10 executions, and I had never seen that before,” he said.

The corrections department differed in its description of Wood’s breathing.

He wasn’t gasping, the department said. He was snoring. Otherwise, his face and body were still.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer expressed concern about the length of time it took for Wood to die but backed up the corrections department.

“Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” she said.

The cruelty he inflicted on his murder victims and their families was much worse, she said.

Brewer directed the corrections department to review the execution process. In its statement, it confirmed it would review “the execution protocol and process.”

Baich blasted Brewer over her assessment and called for an independent, outside investigation.

A federal judge ordered local officials to preserve all physical evidence in Wood’s execution.

Deserved or wrong?

Witnesses to the execution also gave differing accounts of what they saw.

A relative of the two people Wood was convicted in 1989 of murdering — his estranged girlfriend and her father — didn’t think he suffered and also got what he deserved.

“It sounded to me like he was snoring,” said Jeanne Brown, whose father and sister were Wood’s victims.

“You don’t know what excruciating is,” she said. “What’s excruciating is seeing your dad laying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister laying there in a pool of blood.”

Michael Kiefer, a reporter for The Arizona Republic, has witnessed five executions, including Wood’s.

“Obviously, something didn’t go right,” he said. “Usually it takes about 10 minutes, the person goes to sleep. This was not that.”

He described Wood’s breathing as a “deep, snoring, sucking air sound.”

Drug combination controversy

As with executions in other states with new lethal drug combinations, many of the objections have centered on the drugs themselves.

Defense attorney Baich vowed to look into how Arizona came up with the “experimental formula of drugs it used.”

“Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union joined in his outrage.

“It’s time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure,” it said in a statement.

It called for Arizona and other states to prove the reliability of the drugs or stop the executions.

It’s an old quarrel

The quarrel over the drugs used in lethal injections is not new.

Executions in the past have commonly been carried out with a combination of three drugs — an anesthetic to render the inmate unconscious, followed by a paralyzing agent to keep him or her from flailing, then a third drug to kill the inmate, often potassium chloride to halt the heart.

The commonly used anesthetic was once sodium thiopental, which can also be used for surgical anesthesia.

Its sole U.S. manufacturer, Hospira, based in Illinois, stopped making it in 2011 to prevent it from being used in lethal injections. The company said it had never intended it to be used that way.

European manufacturers of the same drug refuse to export it to the United States for the same reason.

States wishing to continue with lethal injections have tried out new drug combinations.

In Wood’s case, the authorities chose a combination of midazolam, which like sodium thiopental is an anesthetic, and hydromorphone, a narcotic pain killer commonly known by its brand name Dilaudid.

An overdose of hydromorphone halts breathing and stops the heart from beating, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Midazolam under fire

Midazolam has come under fire, after the state of Oklahoma used it in an execution that appeared to go awry.

Earlier this year, Oklahoma put executions on hold after the controversial death of inmate Clayton Lockett. Midazolam was part of the injection combination, and it took 43 minutes for him to die, Oklahoma officials said.

While state officials said Lockett was unconscious the entire time, a media witness for CNN affiliate KFOR said he uttered the words, “Man,” “I’m not,” and “something’s wrong” before blinds to the execution chamber were closed.

His lawyer, Dean Sanderford, said the inmate’s body twitched and convulsed before he died.

Wood had petitioned for a stay of execution before Wednesday, saying he feared a similar fate.

His lawyers filed documents with the state Supreme Court. They pointed to midazolam as problematic in recent U.S. executions. They said it would violate the Constitution’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

Wood feared he would suffer

Wood was afraid the combination of midazolam and hydromorphone was experimental, that it would not put him completely out and that he would suffer, according to court documents.

He also argued that the execution should be stopped because his trial attorney was ineffective and that new evaluations from psychologists show he has cognitive impairments that would make him innocent of premeditated murder.

Though the combining of new drugs in lethal injections has sparked controversy, the use of the old combination of drugs that included sodium thiopental was also not fail-safe, medical critics have said.

It is possible with the old combination that executions were quicker and inmates flailed less, but they may have been conscious as they experienced their own executions, critics believe.

The real question to some of them is not if the specific drug is responsible for suffering, but if the method of execution itself is.

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