Third botched US execution reignites death penalty debate

Convicted murderer reported to have gasped and snorted in almost two-hour execution

An undated Arizona department of corrections photograph of Joseph Rudolph Wood who was sentenced to death for the killing in 1989 of his ex-girlfriend and her father.

An undated Arizona department of corrections photograph of Joseph Rudolph Wood who was sentenced to death for the killing in 1989 of his ex-girlfriend and her father.


Strapped to a gurney in an orange jumpsuit, convicted double murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood III uttered his last words – “may God forgive you all” – and the drugs started to flow through the intravenous tubes into his veins at 1.52pm on Wednesday. He was declared fully sedated by 1.57pm.

Wood’s execution should have lasted about 10 to 15 minutes. But eye-witnesses saw the man responsible for the killing of his estranged girlfriend Debbie Dietz and her father Eugene at a Tucson car repair garage in 1989 gulping and gasping for about 90 minutes.

Wood’s lawyers took the unusual step of filing an emergency court motion just after 3pm while the execution was still under way, saying their client had been “gasping and snorting for more than an hour”. They even phoned US supreme court judge Anthony Kennedy.

“He is still alive,” the lawyers said in their court filing. “This execution has violated Mr Wood’s eighth amendment right to be executed in the absence of cruel and unusual punishment.”

Before a court had time to respond, Wood (55) was pronounced dead at 3.49pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the first drugs were administered.

Reporters from the Associated Press and the Arizona Republic who witnessed Wood’s death, the 26th prisoner to be executed in the US this year, counted more than 600 gasps.

The state authorities disputed these accounts. A spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general’s office told the Washington Post there was “no gasping or snorting. Nothing. He looked like he was asleep.”

Wood’s lawyer, Dale Baich, told reporters that Arizona appeared to have joined other states that were responsible for “an entirely preventable horror – a bungled execution”. It was the third time it had happened this year.

In Oklahoma, one of 32 US states that has the death penalty, convicted murderer Clayton Lockett seized violently during his execution in April. He died of a heart attack after 43 minutes.

Last January in Ohio another convicted murderer, Dennis McGuire, was witnessed gasping and struggling before he died after 24 minutes.

In all three cases, a shortage of drugs such as sodium thiopental and pentobarbital have led to experimentations with cocktails of drugs. European drugmakers have refused to sell products to American states over their use in executions.

In Wood’s case, Arizona used a two-drug combination, sedating him with a drug called midazolam, and then killing him with hydromorphone, which shuts down breathing and induces cardiac arrest.

The same combination was used for McGuire’s execution. In Lockett’s case, a catheter appears to have been incorrectly inserted in his vein.

Wood’s lawyers had tried to find out, through legal actions all the way up to the supreme court, who was making Arizona’s lethal drugs and the qualifications of the executioners, arguing that Wood’s constitutional rights were being violated.

The state refused to provide the information over concerns that the manufacturers would be targeted.

‘Horrifying murder’

“This man conducted a horrifying murder and you guys are going, ‘let’s worry about the drugs’,” Richard Brown, Debbie Dietz’s brother-in-law, told reporters afterwards.

Even though Arizona governor Jan Brewer said justice had been done in Wood’s execution, she ordered a full review of what had happened because of her concerns about how long it took for him to die.

John Blume, a law professor at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project, said he was surprised at the “utter indifference” shown by the supreme court to rule in such cases on the transparency of where states source the combination of lethal drugs that are used to kill in a way that is “not only foolish but cruel”.

Death penalty opponents have responded with shock to this year’s botched executions, while proponents have focused on whether states should be using a more effective method of killing. “It doesn’t matter which way you do it,” Kirk Noble Bloodsworth said.

Mr Bloodsworth was the first US death-row inmate to be exonerated by DNA testing after spending almost nine years in a Maryland prison for a murder he did not commit. “We have got to stop asking the question, ‘how do we execute someone in a way that is humane?’ We got to start asking the question, ‘shouldn’t we stop executions, period?’”