PHOENIX (Reuters) - Lawyers for an Arizona killer who took two hours to die from a lethal injection demanded an outside review on Thursday of what they called a terribly “bungled” execution that has prompted renewed debate over the death penalty in the United States.
The complications in executing convicted double-murderer Joseph Wood on Wednesday in a procedure his lawyers complained was cloaked in secrecy came after two other lethal injections went awry earlier this year in Ohio and Oklahoma.
Corrections officials said Wood was never in pain during the execution at a prison southeast of Phoenix, but his lawyers said he struggled for breath for more than 90 minutes. An Arizona Republic reporter who witnessed the execution said the 55-year-old inmate gasped 660 times before falling silent.
Attorney Dale Baich called on Arizona to allow an independent investigation of what he called “the most prolonged bungled execution in recent history,” to determine among other things which drugs were used in what amounts.
“It is important for the people of Arizona to get answers, and only an independent investigation can provide the transparency needed following an execution cloaked in secrecy that went wrong,” Baich said.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer expressed concern over how long the procedure took and ordered a review by prison officials, but said justice had been done. A spokesman said Brewer was confident that an internal probe, which was expected to take several weeks, would be adequate.
The Arizona Republic urged Brewer to put a moratorium on further executions, saying a firing squad would be more humane than allowing a condemned inmate to gasp for breath for two hours. “By trying to pretend we are putting these convicts quietly to ‘sleep,’ we have instead fallen into a protocol that assures a lingering horror,” the paper said in an editorial. “If that is not the definition phrase ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ the words have lost all meaning.”
No executions are scheduled for the immediate future in Arizona. Arizona has executed 37 people since the state reinstated the death penalty in 1992.
Before the Wood execution, the last one occurred in October 2013 when Robert Glen Jones Jr., 43, was put to death for murdering six people during two robberies in Tucson in 1996. Wood was found guilty in 1991 of fatally shooting his former girlfriend Debbie Dietz, 29, and her father, Gene Dietz, 55, two years earlier at a family automobile body shop in Tucson.
Arizona’s Supreme Court cleared the way for him to be put to death on Wednesday, lifting an 11th-hour stay that had briefly been granted over questions he raised about the mix of drugs to be used following the two other botched executions. States that impose the death penalty have been scrambling to find new suppliers of chemical combinations to use in lethal injections after European drug makers objected to having their products used to put people to death.
In Ohio, a death row inmate took 25 minutes to die and reportedly convulsed and gasped for breath in January after he was injected with a deadly sedative-painkiller mix of midazolam and hydromorphone, the first such combination used for a lethal injection in the United States. In Oklahoma in April, another convicted killer writhed in pain as a needle became dislodged during his execution. The process was halted, but the man died anyway of a heart attack. Arizona had said it would use the same combination of drugs that were used in Ohio but at higher doses.
State Corrections Director Charles Ryan said that once sedated - five minutes into the procedure - Wood “did not grimace or make any further movement.” He added that the time it takes to complete an execution varies for each individual. Ryan characterized Wood’s breathing as “sonorous respiration, or snoring,” and said execution team members with whom he conferred during the process assured him “unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress.”
Additional reporting by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Bill Trott, Eric Beech and Peter Cooney