Late last month, an Arizona inmate named Joseph Rudolph Wood was strapped to a gurney and pumped full of drugs that were supposed to kill him quickly. He did not die until two hours later. According to his attorneys, Wood spent more than an hour “gasping and snorting” before he finally died.
Execution records released to Wood’s attorneys on Friday reveal that the inmate was dosed fifteen separate times with two drugs, a sedative called midazolam and a painkiller called hydromorphone, before he died. In total, Wood received 750 milligrams of both drugs.
To put that in perspective, an anesthesiologist told the Associated Press that patients sedated prior to surgery typically receive no more than 2 milligrams of either drug.
Midazolam is not considered a “true general anesthesia” because patients treated with this drug often retain awareness. Indeed, one anesthesiologist told the Wall Street Journal that the states that use this drug in executions “literally have no idea what they’re doing to these people.”
Beyond concerns about this one specific drug, many states have be unable to obtain supplies of the most reliable execution drugs due to international regulations and objections to the death penalty by the drugs’ manufacturers. As a result, many states have turned to unreliable “compounding pharmacies” which produce drugs of uncertain quality and purity. These drugs may have contributed to the length of Wood’s execution.
Since states began turning to drugs of uncertain quality to perform executions, there have been a number of high profile examples where an inmate appeared to be in immense pain prior to their death. An Oklahoma man named Michael Wilson said that his “whole body is burning” during his execution, while an Ohio inmate named Dennis McGuire took nearly 25 minutes to die. He spent his final minutes of life gasping for air.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has thus-far refused to intervene to prevent these cruel and unusual executions. Although a federal appeals court briefly halted Wood’s execution, at least until the state of Arizona revealed “the name and provenance of the drugs to be used in the execution” and “the qualifications of the medical personnel” who would perform the execution, the Supreme Court allowed the execution to move forward.