Arizona calls temporary halt to executions after prolonged death

Experts say it was one of longest times for drugs to kill prisoner in US

Arizona Department of Corrections handout showing Joseph Rudolph Wood who was executed by lethal injection in Florence, Arizona. Photograph: Arizona Department of Correction / EPA

Arizona Department of Corrections handout showing Joseph Rudolph Wood who was executed by lethal injection in Florence, Arizona. Photograph: Arizona Department of Correction / EPA

Fri, Jul 25, 2014, 07:39

The Arizona attorney general has called a temporary halt to executions in the state, a day after convicted killer Joseph Wood died one hour and 57 minutes after his execution began.

Death penalty experts said it was one of the longest times it has taken in the United States for drugs to kill a condemned man.

But Charles Ryan, the director of the state’s department of corrections rejected the notion that the execution was botched, despite the fact that the procedure of death by lethal injection usually takes about 15 minutes.

He said in a statement that an autopsy by the Pima County medical examiner, concluded yesterday, found that the intravenous lines were “perfectly placed,” “the catheters in each arm were completely within the veins” and “there was no leakage of any kind.”

“I am committed to a thorough, transparent and comprehensive review process,” Mr Ryan said.

The execution of Wood was, by all accounts, an unusual one: Once a vein had been tapped, it took one hour and 52 minutes for the drugs pumped into him to do their work; the process dragged on long enough for Wood’s lawyers to file an emergency appeal to a US district court to stop the execution.

Some witnesses to Wood’s execution said that he gasped, seemingly for air, more than 600 times as he died. “The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed,” wrote one witness, Michael Kiefer, a reporter for The Arizona Republic. Others - a representative of the attorney general’s office, plus relatives of the two people Wood killed - characterised what they saw coming from the death chamber as more like snoring.

The episode has once again stoked the debate over the kinds and source of the drugs used in executions and led the state to promise an investigation. Wood’s execution was the fourth troubled one this year, and the injection he received was a two-drug combination - hydromorphone, an opioid painkiller that suppresses breathing, and midazolam, a sedative - that was used in another prolonged execution in Ohio in January.

In the case of Wood, “Irrespective of whether there was suffering, just given the description, an execution is not supposed to take this long - it went on far longer than it was supposed to,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University and a death penalty opponent who has studied execution methods extensively. And the reactions of Wood during the process, she said, “are atypical of an execution that’s supposed to be performed properly.”

Dr Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at Columbia University and an expert on lethal injection, said that based on the information available, it was impossible so far to say exactly what happened.

One possibility, he said, is that “the drugs don’t behave in a way that we would expect when given in high dosage.” Because they have never been used in such high dosages in any context other than lethal injections, their effects cannot be tested, “so everyone is working in the dark,” he said.

Indeed, the amount of the drug midazolam given in different states varies widely. Florida uses 500 milligrams, while Ohio initially said it would use 10 milligrams and moved up to 50 after the troubled execution in January of Dennis McGuire, who appeared to gasp and snort in the 26 minutes it took him to die. Oklahoma uses 100 milligrams; Arizona used 50 milligrams.

A second possible explanation is that the intravenous lines were improperly placed and the drugs did not flow properly into the bloodstream, but that mistake would most likely have left Wood awake on the gurney for a longer time than reports suggest.

“I don’t think that happened, but it’s definitely possible,” Dr Heath said. Still another possibility, and one that might be more likely, he said, is the problem known as retrograde injection, which occurs when proper safeguards are not taken and drugs injected into an intravenous line flow backward into the IV bag. Those precautions against backflow would be harder to notice in the sometimes-dim light of the room where the execution workers do their jobs. A third potential problem for the execution is that “we don’t know the chain of custody of the drugs,” and how they were kept, Dr Heath said.

After the execution of Clayton . Lockett in Oklahoma in April, in which the inept administration of drugs prompted the criminal to writhe in pain, US president Barack Obama directed the justice department to review how executions are conducted, calling the episode “deeply troubling.” A justice department spokeswoman said that the investigation was “underway and ongoing.”

Some argue the whole debate over drugs misses the point. In a legal opinion that preceded the execution, chief judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th US circuit Court of Appeals - who wrote a dissenting opinion to the court’s decision to deny a full hearing over a panel’s granting of a temporary stay of execution for Wood - said that death by lethal injection should be replaced by more “foolproof” methods, preferably firing squads. Judge Kozinski referred to drug-induced deaths as a “misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful.”

In a telephone interview, Judge Kozinski declined to talk directly about the Wood execution but said that in general, “bodies are different, and people react differently to the medicine” used in lethal injections. “I think mishaps are inevitable” with drugs, he added, “unlike bullets.” Besides, he said, “These medicines are not made to kill people - they are made to heal.” As manufacturers refused to sell to states the barbiturates traditionally used in executions, supplies dried up and the states had to improvise. They looked for other drugs to replace the old three-drug protocol, which included medication that acted directly to stop the heart, and also other sources, like compounding pharmacies, which are lightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

In Arizona, the federal public defender’s office, which represented Wood, sued the state to get it to reveal the source of the drugs and won a fleeting victory when the appellate court granted a temporary stay to his execution. But then, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court allowed the execution to proceed.

Wood was convicted of fatally shooting his estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Gene Dietz, at their auto repair shop in Tucson in 1989. After the execution on Wednesday, Debra Dietz’s brother-in-law, Richard Brown, scolded reporters, saying that Wood “smiled and laughed at us, and then went to sleep.” He added: “So all you people who think that these drugs are bad? Well, to hell with you guys. You guys need to look at the big picture.”

Gov Jan Brewer has ordered the state corrections department to review the process used in the execution, even as support for the death penalty remains strong in the state. Meanwhile, Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for attorney general Tom Horne, said that he would not issue any warrants of execution until the review was complete “as a matter of caution.”

Dale Baich, an assistant federal public defender representing Wood, also called for an investigation but insisted that it is carried out independently to protect its integrity. “There is far too much that we don’t know at this point,” like the choice of drugs and amounts, as well as the “qualifications of the execution team,” Mr Baich said. “Only an independent investigation can provide the transparency needed following an execution cloaked in secrecy that went wrong.”

New York Times