Using an unusual concoction of drugs this afternoon, Arizona attempted to execute a man on death row. One hour after he was supposed to have been lethally injected, however, Joseph Rudolph Wood was still alive, “gasping and snoring.” Wood’s lawyers filed an emergency request to stay the execution and give the man life-saving help, but it was too late: After two hours, he died.
Wood’s execution almost didn’t occur today. Just three days ago, a federal appeals court put the lethal injection plans on pause, requiring the state to disclose “the name and provenance of the drugs to be used in the execution” and “the qualifications of the medical personnel” performing the execution. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme court reversed that lower court’s ruling, and, after another brief stay by Arizona’s Supreme Court, the execution continued as planned
All this conflict has arisen because overseas drug-makers have raised moral objections to their products being used in executions, and refused to sell the medications for that purpose. As the usual drugs used to lethally inject inmates have been pulled from the shelves by their makers, the American justice system has turned to untested, often undisclosed, drugs to kill its inmates. Those drugs are usually made not in pharmacies but in drug compounding facilities not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
What’s more, administering lethal injection violates the Hippocratic oath, to which doctors must adhere. That means that the people performing the injections are often less qualified to do so.
Wood’s extended survival through execution is only one of several horrible results from this conflict. Just last month, Oklahoma botched an execution, leaving inmate Clayton Lockett writhing in pain for 43 minutes before he suffered the massive heart attack that ultimately killed him. And before him, there were more: Eric Robert, for example, turned purple and gasped for 20 minutes before he died back in 2012. Michael Lee Wilson was said to have screamed, “I feel my whole body burning” before he eventually died during his execution.
The underlying legal question behind all of these incidents is whether or not execution by lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment — and many say that the evidence is mounting that, with these untried cocktails slowing down executions, it is. Some advocates for the death penalty have even said it’s time to turn toward other methods of execution, including the electric chair, firing squads, and even the guillotine.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) told reporters following the botched execution that witness accounts indicated Wood did not suffer, but she has asked for a review of the execution process. A spokesperson for the state’s Attorney General, who witnessed the execution, told National Journal, “I was surprised by how peaceful it was.”