Here we get conflicting statements from the state of Arizona vs. the executed man’s lawyer and a witness who reported in the Guardian. Joseph Wood III, convicted of executing his estranged girlfriend and her father, was put to death yesterday in Arizona by lethal injection. The procedure normally takes ten minutes. This one took nearly two hours. As the New York Times reports:
In another unexpectedly prolonged execution using disputed lethal injection drugs, a condemned Arizona prisoner on Wednesday repeatedly gasped for one hour and 40 minutes, according to witnesses, before dying at an Arizona state prison.
. . . But what would normally be a 10- to 15-minute procedure dragged on for nearly two hours, as Mr. Wood appeared repeatedly to gasp, according to witnesses including reporters and one of his federal defenders, Dale Baich.
Mauricio Marin, who witnessed it, reported in The Guardian:
The curtains opened. The medical staff checked the man’s veins. He said his last words – “God forgive you all” – and the lethal drugs began to flow, at 1.52pm. James Wood appeared to fall asleep, albeit strapped down to a table, and he looked straight ahead at the wall. The first 10 minutes went according to plan.
Then, a hard gulp. I looked over to my left: the priest praying the rosary. To my right: the family watching on. Then dead ahead: the side of Wood’s stomach appeared to move, even after the Arizona state prison’s medical staff had announced he was sedated.
I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing – or choking, possibly even gasping for air. I knew this because Wood’s stomach moved at the same time, just like it would if you were lying down and trying to breath. Then another of those gulps – those gasps for air, movements just from the throat area and sometimes from the stomach, too.
I started looking at the priest’s watch to keep track of time. Five, 10, 20 minutes … an hour had passed. I started to wonder: Will this get called off? Will this ever stop?
I continued to scribble on my state-issued notepad, counting the gulps and gasps of the man on the gurney. I counted 660. This went on for over an hour and a half.
During that time, medical staff checked Wood six times in total, looking at his eyes, feeling for a pulse on his neck, informing us over the loud speaker that he was still sedated. His eyes were still closed.
My eyes turned to Wood’s attorney, Dale Baich, as he handed a lady a note and she left the witness chamber. I wondered what the lawyer had written, and as the door opened, it let in a bright light, for just a quick moment.
What seemed like an eternity passed – 20, 30, 45 minutes more, looking straight ahead – and finally the gulps and gasps started to slow, from about every five seconds or so, to about one per minute. Finally, the gulps and gasps stopped. A few minutes more went by. At last, the killing had stopped, too. A medical staff member checked Wood again one last time. Another few minutes still, and the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3.49pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution had began.
In a move that I think is unprecedented, Wood’s lawyers asked for a stay of execution to both the federal district court and Judge Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme court an hour into the execution, as Wood was still alive. Both courts refused. (On Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court also overturned a stay of execution ordered by a lower court, demanding details about the source of the lethal drugs and the training of those who administered them.)
What were the drugs? The Times notes:
Arizona officials said they were using the same sedative that was used in Oklahoma, midazolam, together with a different second drug, hydromorphone, a combination that has been used previously in Ohio. Similar problems were reported in the execution in Ohio in January of Dennis McGuire, using the same two drugs. He reportedly gasped as the procedure took longer than expected.
There are reliable ways to execute someone by injection. That involves using the same drugs that people take when they end their own lives legally, as they do in Switzerland. The drugs are barbiturates, and are guaranteed to cause sleep and then a painless death. But these aren’t used in the U.S. for executions, for their manufacturers won’t sell them for purposes of execution. This means that a variety of other drugs, produced by dubious “compounding pharmacies” whose names the executioners won’t disclose, are used—with variable and often horrible results. Moreover, persons trained to administer drugs, like physicians, are forbidden from participating in executions.
Naturally, the state of Arizona maintains that Wood didn’t suffer. They said he was snoring, that he was asleep. But how do they know what he actually felt? There is no way to know what a man who is gasping but appears unconscious is actually experiencing. I doubt he was simply “snoring” as he was dying.
And of course Wood’s botched execution was minimalized by both the Governor of Arizona and the victims’ relatives:
“This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, ‘Let’s worry about the drugs,’ ” Richard Brown, brother-in-law of Debra Dietz, told The A.P. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?”
Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona said that she was concerned about the length of time the execution took.
“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.”
Drano? That is a caustic drain-cleaning chemical in the U.S. that people occasionally swallow to kill themselves, producing a horrible death. The point, though, is not to contrast the relative ease of the criminal’s death with that of his victims. The point is that when we take away from someone the only thing he has left—his earthly existence—we should not act as a country the way a criminal acts toward his victims. Do we want them to suffer. Of course there is plenty of mental suffering involved in knowing exactly when you’ll die, but what kind of people demand physical suffering as well? We should be better than vicious criminals!
Physicians will not participate in these executions, companies will not sell states the drugs we need for painless executions, and executions cost more than life in prison without parole. Further, capital punishment puts our country into the killing business. We are the only First World country to retain the death penalty (see below), and we can’t even carry it out properly. Isn’t it time to bring this charade to an end?
Here, from Wikipedia, are the countries that have abolished the death penalty (dark green; 97 nations) versus those that retain it in some form. Only the red ones (58 nations) have actually used it in the last ten years. Light green countries (8 nations) have it only for special circumstances like war crimes; tan countries (35 nations) retain capital punishment but haven’t used it in at least a decade: