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.”