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]?”

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