Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air

Experts said execution procedures were 'unreliable and the consequences are horrific'

US Editor

There had been the usual last-minute legal appeals but when the condemned man was strapped down in the death chamber early on Wednesday afternoon in the state prison in Florence, Arizona, the witnesses seated in the viewing gallery expected the execution itself to be over quickly. That’s not what happened.

At first all seemed normal. Joseph Wood, sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend, Debbie Dietz, and her father, Gene Dietz, in 1989 at a Tucson car repair garage, uttered his brief last words, made eye contact with the pastor beside him and through the glass to family members of the victims who were among those in the gallery. At 1.52pm, the lethal drugs began coursing through the tubes leading to a vein in his arm.

It was not quite 10 minutes later that the gasping began. Reporters, who were also among the witnesses, reported seeing his jaw drop and his chest start to heave as his lungs battled for air not once or twice but more than 600 times. At one point a member of the execution team spoke via microphone to everyone in the gallery, claiming Wood was comatose and was not suffering.

He was finally declared dead at 3.50 pm.

It was “very disturbing to watch,” recalled Troy Hayden, a Fox TV reporter who was in the gallery, “like a fish on shore gulping for air. At a certain point, you wondered whether he was ever going to die.”

Video: Arizona execution lasts two hours

The dispatching of Wood in fact took no less than one hour and 57 minutes. Indeed, about one hour into it his defence lawyers launched a mid-execution effort to have the courts in Arizona stop the procedure in its tracks and their client revived. The Arizona Supreme Court, indeed, was in the midst of a hearing by conference call to consider the request when word came that in fact Wood had finally expired.

Executions by lethal injection are meant to take no more than 20 minutes and by today critics of the death penalty were lamenting what they were calling the third badly botched execution this year.

The killing by lethal injection of an inmate in Ohio went similarly awry in January. An execution in Oklahoma in April was halted when the inmate Clayton Lockett appeared to regain consciousness midway through it. It transpired the IV tube had not been inserted correct. He then died of a heart attack anyway.

Victim Debbie Dietz's sister Jeanne Brown speaks during a news conference after the execution as her husband Richard Brown listens (AP) Victim Debbie Dietz's sister Jeanne Brown speaks during a news conference after the execution as her husband Richard Brown listens (AP)

After the Oklahoma case, President Barack Obama asked the Attorney General, Eric Holder, to review the way in which the death penalty is being administered. That review is still under way and its outcome uncertain. What is sure, however, is that debate about the viability of America’s death chambers, not to mention the morality of them, will be further stirred by the third occurrence of an execution gone awry.

“These procedures are unreliable and the consequences are horrific,” noted Megan McCracken, of the University of California, Berkeley, school of law’s death penalty clinic. Deborah Denno, professor of criminal law and criminal procedure at Fordham Law School, agreed what happened to Wood might accelerate change.

“I think every time one of these botches happens, it leads to questioning the death penalty even more,” Professor Denno said. “It will reach a point where the public will question the value of these execution procedures generally, and perhaps the death penalty itself.”

Read more:
What you need to know about the US death penalty
Court: Executions so 'dysfunctional' they're unconstitutional
Clayton Lockett execution: The killing that puts death row on trial

The crisis in the death penalty system has come about because pharmaceutical companies in Europe and Canada decided they no longer were willing to sell the drugs that have traditionally been mixed into a cocktail for lethal injections to any state intending to use them for that purpose. That has forced some states to experiment with new cocktails and suppliers. The inmates have become guinea pigs.

As America’s death penalty states have looked for alternative drug mixes they have also sought to obscure the identities of the companies supplying them – some are fly-by-night kitchens not fully available to government oversight – as well as the names of those overseeing the procedures in the death chamber.

This sudden appetite for secrecy has led to repeated legal challenges. Indeed, lawyers for Wood attempted in the days before his execution to argue that he had a right to know which drugs were to be used to kill him and where they were coming from. A federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld that view last weekend, but then the Supreme Court overruled that decision and the execution went ahead.

In a dissent the chief justice on the federal court actually argued that execution by lethal injection was “doomed” and states should find an alternative method. “The guillotine is probably best,” wrote Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals or the firing squad. He added that the use of lethal injection was a “misguided effort” to pretend the process was essentially “serene and peaceful”.

“Executions are, in fact, nothing like that,” the judge argued. “They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it.”

By the time Wood’s lawyers were frantically trying to have Wednesday’s procedure halted, they had changed to arguing that his execution amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. “We were arguing that he was still alive, that we did not know his level of sedation, and that he was still breathing,” says Dale Baich, one of the lawyers who  witnessed the nearly two-hour debacle.

Arizona officials continued to insist Wood was unconscious throughout, that the desperate sighing and gasping was in effect snoring. Republican Governor Janet Brewer was confident of that too. “Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” she said in a statement. She did ask for an investigation, however, into why it all took so long.

Certainly, if there was concern among some of the witness that the dispatching of Wood had by no means gone to plan, it was not shared by the family of his victims. “This man conducted a horrifying murder and you guys are going, `let’s worry about the drugs,’” said Richard Brown, who is married to Debbie Dietz’s sister. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano [a corrosive drain cleaner]?”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick