An Arizona execution by lethal injection yesterday left convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood alive for more than 90 minutes, long enough for his attorneys to file emergency appeals to stop the process, citing violation of Wood’s Eighth Amendment rights to death without cruel and unusual punishment. Wood’s defense attorney Dale Baich called it a botched execution, and said that Arizona has joined several other states in responsibility for an “entirely preventable horror.” The execution took place Wednesday afternoon in Florence.
Some observers said that Wood appeared to be struggling to breathe during the procedure, while others said he appeared to be sleeping, and that what some considered gasping was merely snoring. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said eyewitness and medical accounts indicate that Wood did not suffer, but is ordering a full review of the state’s execution process.
The incident has once again raised the issue of capital punishment. Megan McCracken of the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law said the procedures are not reliable and have horrific consequences. Fordham Law School professor Deborah Denno said every time one of these incidents happens it leads the public to question both the execution procedures and the death penalty itself. Alex Kozinski, chief justice of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals suggested replacing lethal drugs with something more efficient, such as firing squads.
The process of execution by lethal injection normally takes only 10-15 minutes. The fact that Wood took nearly two hours to die was reminiscent of another prolonged execution that took place in Oklahoma in April, when Clayton D. Lockett writhed and gasped for several minutes after receiving his injection. That execution used different drugs than yesterday’s, and indications are that in the Oklahoma case an improperly placed catheter caused the drugs to enter Lockett’s tissues rather than his veins, leaving him only partially sedated before he received the drugs to stop his heart.
Wood’s execution yesterday used the same sedative as in the Oklahoma incident, but a different second drug, which was recently used in Ohio with similar problems. In the Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire in January, he reportedly also gasped as the procedure took longer than was expected.
The process of capital punishment through lethal injection has been experiencing additional problems due to increasing unwillingness by drug companies to manufacture and sell traditionally used barbiturates for this purpose. New drug combinations are being tried, and Arizona and other state officials are refusing to reveal the manufacturers for fear that they will also stop providing the drugs. Wood’s lawyers were successful in gaining a short delay of the execution when the San Francisco U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it could not be carried out until the state revealed both the source of the drugs and details on the training of those who would carry out the procedure.
Wood was convicted in 1991 for the murder of Debra Dietz, his estranged girlfriend, and her father, Eugene Dietz. The murders occurred in Tucson in August 1989. The victims’ family members witnessed the execution and said they had no problems with the way it was carried out. Richard Brown, Debbie Dietz’s brother-in-law, questioned why there was so much worry about the drugs for a man who committed a horrific murder.
The Arizona inmate was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., more than 90 minutes after the lethal injection execution began at 1:52 p.m. State officials had no immediate explanation of why the procedure took so long.
By Beth A. Balen