25 July 2014

Inmate takes two hours to die in another botched execution

In another disastrous attempt at capital punishment, Joseph Wood took nearly two hours to die from an untested combination of drugs.

Joseph R. Wood III was pronounced dead at 3:49 pm on Wednesday, a full 1 hour and 57 minutes after the drugs meant to kill him had been administered. The process normally takes no longer than 15 minutes.

The process took so long that Wood's lawyers had time to file an emergency motion at a nearby courthouse, looking to halt the execution. A journalist watching the execution counted Wood gasp 660 times before he finally succumbed. The motion was turned down, with word coming half an hour after Wood was pronounced dead.

Part of the problem is believed to be the drugs used in the procedure. Following a boycott by major pharmacies both inside and outside of the United States, prisons have struggled to get their hands on sufficient quantities of the chemicals normally used. 

Read: Missouri heading for record number if execution in one year

The conventional protocol for lethal injection is a barbiturate, usually sodium thiopental, to induce unconsciousness, this is followed by pancuronium bromide which causes respiratory arrest and finally potassium chloride which stops the heart from beating.

As states have run into difficulties in trying to gain access to these drugs, they have turned to other more freely available ones. However, while these new combinations may be feasible on paper, there is no way to test them until they are used in an actual execution. This has led to claims that death row inmates are being used as guinea pigs and their deaths are in violation of bans against cruel and unusual punishment.

In the case of Joseph Wood, the sedative used was a massive dose of midazolam, followed by hydromorphone, an opioid. The medical record of the procedure stated that it took 4 minutes for him to reach a state of surgical anaesthesia, but nearly two hours until his lungs stopped working and he was pronounced dead. 

Read: Executing pregnant women

The nature of the execution caused significant uproar as death-penalty activists claimed it was another example of a procedure that did not work. The Governor of Arizona Jan Brewer, who is a staunch supporter of capital punishment, ordered an investigation into the execution.

In a statement, Brewer said: “While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process,” she said. “One thing is certain, however: Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer. This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims — and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

A federal court ordered that blood samples be taken from 6 different parts of Wood's body as well as tissue samples from his brain, liver and muscles. This was to be completed before 8 pm to ensure the integrity of the samples. The labels from the drugs used were also requested by the Arizona Supreme Court. 

This latest drama comes just months after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett on Oklahoma. Lockett was clearly not fully sedated and tried to rise from the gurney 14 minutes after the drugs were administered. However, while Lockett was most probably in severe pain, it is unclear whether Wood was suitably conscious to experience pain himself. 

Read the full account of Clayton Lockett's botched execution
Wood was sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of his estranged girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father Eugene Dietz. Ms. Dietz had obtained a restraining order against Wood but he confronted her father, who disapproved of their relationship, before shooting them both dead.

Executions in Arizona have been temporarily halted while the investigation is ongoing. The state currently has 119 inmates on death row. 

Read more:
Death row schizophrenic refusing drugs 
What happens when you die  
How a murderer's mind works

Sources: BBC/New York Times/The Guardian



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