After an inmate gasped for almost two hours on the death row gurney in Arizona this week, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) declared decisively that Joseph Rudolph Wood “did not suffer” during his execution and that she is “certain” Wood died in a “lawful manner.” But after 24 hours of outrage over what was one of the longest executions in history, the Arizona Attorney General said the state will halt executions temporarily while an investigation proceeds into what went wrong.
This outcome was not unpredictable. In late April, an Oklahoma execution that, like Arizona’s, used a secret supply of lethal injection drugs, prompted a similar moratorium on the death penalty after an inmate suffocated for 43 minutes. The first independent autopsy to be released since then has revealed that critical error on the part of executioners delivering the drugs played a central role in the disproportionately long execution. Properly performed executions typically take about ten minutes.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called his state’s execution “torture.” “The lethal injection needs to be an indeed [sic] lethal injection and not the bollocks-upped situation that just prevailed,” told Politico. He added that “people who were responsible should be held responsible.” But even after declaring the moratorium, state officials have continued to insist that the execution was proper. Some have even accused witnesses to Wood’s death of lying about his condition.
Witnesses — including several reporters — recounted a harrowing scene of gasping and convulsing before Wood died. “He gulped like a fish on land,” a reporter for the Arizona Republic said. “The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed.” But a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General said Wood was merely snoring, and accused other witnesses of making up their accounts.
The execution escalates controversy over increasingly questionable methods of lethal injection. Like several other states, Arizona has turned to using secret drugs for executions whose source is not disclosed to anyone, even the inmate’s lawyer seeking to verify its safety. These secret drugs come from small-batch pharmacies not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and refusal to disclose even the name of the pharmacy that made the drugs means an inmate’s lawyer cannot verify whether the drug will lead to the sort of cruel and unusual punishment banned by the execution.
But Arizona’s execution was also controversial in a second way. It used an unusual three-drug cocktail containing a sedative that has been linked to several recent botched executions. This short-acting sedative, midazolam, is not “technically a true anesthesia” according to some anesthesiologists, and may leave inmates with some awareness. On top of that, doctors are not sure what dose is sufficient or appropriate for executions, since it is typically used for short procedures.
States have had to turn to more controversial lethal injection methods in part because of international opposition to the death penalty. Pharmaceutical companies that make the FDA-regulated drugs states once used are now refusing to provide these drugs because of moral opposition or subject to export restrictions on drugs for execution. And some public figures are calling for a return to other methods of execution instead. In a legal opinion just days before Wood’s death, federal appeals court judge Alex Kozinski called for a return to firing squads, writing, “If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”