Civil Liberties

Barbarism in the USA: Arizona's Botched Execution

There are limits to the type of punishment the state can impose on prisoners in America.


Joseph Randolph Wood
Arizona Corrections

Another state, another botched execution carried out with secret new drugs. This time: Arizona, where convicted murderer Joseph Randolph Wood gasped and snorted for more than 90 minutes after his execution began. What should have been a 10- to 15- minute ordeal took 117 minutes for Wood.

According to witnesses, Wood "gulped like a fish on land" and made movements "like a piston: the mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed." He gasped for air roughly 660 times over the course of the 117-minute execution—which had been carried out using a controversial two-drug cocktail the state had never used before.

One of the drugs, midazolam, has been used in flawed executions carried out in other states this year, including the horrific botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, who died of a heart attack more than 40 minutes after the procedure started. It was also used in Ohio on Dennis McGuire, who gasped and snorted on the gurney before being pronounced dead 25 minutes after the execution began.

In the weeks leading up to Wood's execution, his attorneys argued that Wood had a First Amendment right to information about the drugs that would be used to kill him, which Arizona—like many states throughout the country—has kept confidential. On Saturday, the U.S. 9th Circuit Appeals Court sided with Wood and ruled that the execution could not be carried out until Arizona provided him with information about the origins of the lethal injection drugs, as well as the qualifications of the personnel who were going to administer the drugs.

The 9th Circuit's ruling is significant, as it marks the first time a federal court has ever issued a stay of execution based on the issue of drug secrecy. In all previous challenges, the court has sided with states. (Notable that one of the judges who dissented from the decision was Judge Jay Bybee, known for signing the infamous "torture memos" in 2002, which authorized "enhanced interrogation techniques" used at Guantanamo Bay.)

Arizona state officials appealed, but the circuit court upheld the ruling.  On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the federal court ruling and cleared the way for the execution to proceed on Wednesday at 10 a.m. MDT. However, the Arizona Supreme Court halted the execution minutes before it was set to take place in order to consider a last-minute appeal by Wood's lawyers over the secrecy of the lethal injection drugs to be used.

A couple of hours later, the state supreme court dissolved the stay, and Wood was strapped to the gurney. At 1:52 p.m., the execution commenced. According to journalists present, he began to gasp for air roughly seven minutes after the procedure began, and continued gasping for more than an hour and a half. According to his lawyers, who had enough time to file an emergency motion for a stay of execution while he laid alive on the gurney, staff checked Wood for sedation at 3:02 p.m. and found he was still alive. At 3:49 p.m., Wood was finally pronounced dead.

Shortly after, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer released a statement ordering the Arizona Department of Corrections to conduct a "full review of the process." However, because the review is going to be conducted by the very same people who were responsible for the botched execution yesterday, one should be skeptical that the investigation will be unbiased or thorough.

In her statement, Gov. Brewer also claimed, "Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer." This, she said, "is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims—and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family." Wood was sentenced to death in 1991 for shooting and killing his estranged girlfriend and her father in 1989.

Brewer's response to Wood's death was predictable yet telling. Besides misrepresenting some eyewitness accounts, Brewer's comments reveal her ignorance of the role of the state in carrying out capital punishment.

Yes, it's true that Wood's victims suffered. And yes, the families of the victims have suffered as well, probably much more than Wood did last night. But there are limits to the type of punishment the state can impose on prisoners in America—the punishment they receive for their crimes isn't supposed to match the level of pain and suffering they impose on their victims or victims' families. Vengeance isn't the job of the state. To argue otherwise signals a fundamental misunderstanding of the restraints purposely put on the government to protect its citizens from abuse and tyranny.

Wood certainly won't be the last inmate to have his execution botched. As long as states continue to experiment on inmates with secret lethal injection drugs from presumably dubious sources without providing an ounce of transparency into the process, these grisly results are going to continue to repeat themselves again and again.