Arizona Botched Execution Not That Uncommon


The Arizona execution of convicted murderer James Woods made headlines on July 23 after the death row inmate suffered for two hours following a lethal-injection. This botched execution in Arizona, while gruesome, is not all that uncommon.

Prisoner Joseph Woods was sentenced to death for murder. Prior to his execution, the criminal petitioned the court to use another, more humane and trusted means. This is because more than once in the past six months alone, prisoners have seen longer and more painful deaths by lethal injection. These bungled executions have largely been under the influence of drugs that have not been approved by the FDA for the purposes of human termination.

Joseph Wood’s death by lethal injection mirrors a similarly failed lethal injection that took place in Ohio in January 2014. Dennis McGuire, convicted of the rape and murder of a pregnant woman, spent 25 minutes gasping for air following his lethal injection. This case made news because it was a combination of drugs that the FDA had not approved at the time. The drugs used on McGuire in Ohio, midazolam and hydromorphone, were also used on Woods in Arizona.

McGuire, who was convicted of raping and stabbing a pregnant woman to death, took 25 minutes to die after being injected with an untested cocktail of drugs. Twenty minutes is the average time that it takes for these drugs to take effect. What was uncommon about McGuire’s case was not the time frame, but rather his symptoms. He appeared to be gasping for breath at points, witnesses reported at the time. Similarly, a reporter for the Arizona Republic counted Woods gasp for breaths 660 times while he waited the agonizing 117 minutes to die.

Another prisoner in Oklahoma, Clayton D. Lockett, was also sentenced to death by lethal injection on April 29 of this year. Convicted of shooting a 19-year-old woman and then burying her alive, Lockett was injected with lethal doses of these same drugs in his “groin area,” due to lack of an otherwise usable vein. Lockett writhed, winced and groaned, all despite being initially pronounced unconscious before the drugs were administered. While the execution was granted an emergency stay, Lockett died of a heart attack some 43 minutes later. This inmate’s botched execution, not unlike the Arizona mishap most recently in the news, is not uncommon in the form of other court ordered executions either.

Another Arizona prisoner, Donald Eugene Harding, was executed by asphyxiation on April 6, 1992. Harding, convicted of a triple murder, was the first man to be executed in the state’s gas chambers in over 29 years. Witnesses reported that after the cyanide pills were dropped, Harding appeared to be in pain, and that he gasped, moaned and suffered violently for six minutes and 37 seconds. September 2, 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi also gasped for air and reportedly banged his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber for over eight minutes. This convicted murderer and child rapist was the first man in Mississippi to be executed since the death penalty was famously reinstated in 1976. It was later discovered that the executioner in this case was drunk at the time of Gray’s execution.

In 1983, Florida inmate Jesse Joseph Tafero was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of two highway patrol officers on May 4, 1990. During Tafero’s execution, six-inch flames burst from the convict’s head. It took three jolts of electricity to terminate the inmate, who was given a synthetic rather than a natural sea sponge. Some inmates believed the machine was intentionally tampered with to ensure that the convicted killer of law enforcement suffered for his crimes. It was revealed that Tafero was in fact not guilty many years following his execution when the real shooter confessed. Alabama prisoner John Evans also saw sparks and flames erupt from an electrode secured to his leg during his electrocution on April 22, 1983. Smoke as well as sparks emitted from Evans temple as a second jolt of electricty was delivered, and a third and final jolt left Evans’ body smoldering 14 minutes after the initial jolt.

Botched executions, like the one in Arizona, are not as uncommon as the public may think, and these failed death sentences have been well documented for decades. As more cases of inhumane death sentences and executions receive public scrutiny, human rights advocates hope this will bring about discussion and change for executions that are more benevolent.

By Mariah Beckman

NY Times (One Botched Execution)
NY Times (Gruesome Death)
AZ Central
Death Penalty Information Center  Examples of Post-Furman Botched Executions

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