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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wood Execution Wasn’t ‘Botched,’ Arizona Insists

(CN) - Though the man Arizona last executed was heavily sedated and did not suffer during the nearly two hours it took him die, the state vowed Monday to tweak the drug cocktail it uses to kill prisoners.

Gov. Jan Brewer called for a full review of the July 23, 2014, execution of Joseph Wood based on reports that he was gasping and snorting for more than an hour after being administered a fatal mixture of drugs. The execution began at 1:52 p.m. and Wood was not pronounced dead until 3:49 p.m., far longer than most executions take.

Wood's attorneys and a chorus of anti-death penalty advocates cited the "botched" execution as an example of the inadequacy of current lethal-injection protocols.

Wood was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 murders of Debra and Eugene Dietz in Tucson.

Arizona adopted the two-drug execution protocol used on Wood, which includes midazolam and hydromorphone, in March 2014 after the original ingredients became unavailable.

In a letter to Brewer that outlines an independent group's review of Wood's execution, Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan said Monday that he will "remove the existing two-drug protocol using midazolam and hydromorphone ... and add two, three-drug protocols using either midazolam vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride or sodium pentothal, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride."

Arizona and other states had previously used pentobarbital or sodium pentothal as the first drug in the execution cocktail, but those drugs are no longer available. Ryan said he will continue to shop around for those drugs while using the new protocol, which he noted "has been successfully utilized by Florida in eight recent executions and it is a current protocol in four other states."

Corrections Solutions Inc. and CGL prepared the 54-page report on Wood's execution that Ryan also released on Monday.

The report says that, in the opinion of the execution team leader who administered the IV, "Wood was not suffering during this process and was sedated fully at all times."

"Throughout the course of the protocol Wood remained heavily sedated," the report states. "He [the execution team leader] felt that the breathing that was observed by the witnesses was 'reflexive' and not an indication that Wood was not totally sedated. During the course of the protocol he conducted tests on Wood to determine the level of sedation and responsiveness. He indicated he was totally unresponsive to stimuli. He reported that he conducted standard tests to confirm sedation including using a cotton swab on the cornea of the eye and a pin prick to determine if there was any reflexive response. He reported in the course of these tests there was no response from Wood."

Wood's execution was not "botched" in the manner of the April 29, 2014, execution in Oklahoma of Clayton Lockett, according to the report. Oklahoma prison officials blamed improper placement of an intravenous line and catheter for causing Lockett to writhe in agony during his execution. A new report on Lockett's case calls hius execution a "bloody mess."

But Arizona emphasized that "nothing similar to that occurred in the Wood execution."

"The process and the implementation of the protocol was not 'botched' as has been described in the Lockett execution," its report states.

Comparing Arizona's execution protocols to those of 10 others states, including Ohio, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri, the team found that Arizona's could serve as a national model.

"In particular, the specificity of the procedures, the comprehensive nature of its provisions, and the training regime that was documented for all team members could serve as national standards for other systems," the report states.

"The report is clear that the execution of inmate Wood was handled in accordance with all department procedures, which, as the report states, either meet or exceed national standards," Ryan said in a statement. "It was done appropriately and with the utmost professionalism."

In late November, pending the review of the Wood execution, U.S. District Judge Neil Wake stayed a lawsuit by the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona and several death-row inmates seeking more information about the state's secretive execution protocols.

Wake's order also barred the state from moving "for an execution warrant for any of the condemned plaintiffs or any other condemned prisoners until after this action has been resolved through settlement among the parties; or this court has entered a final judgment on the merits."

The Guardian and other news outlets also challenged the state's secrecy in a federal lawsuit in October, arguing that officials had illegally refused to disclose "the source, composition, or quality of the drugs in response to public requests for that information, preventing democratic oversight and discussion of the ADC's execution practices."

Attorney Dale Baich, who represented Wood, did not immediately return a request for comment. He told the Arizona Republic on Tuesday that the report failed to "answer the question of why the experimental drug protocol did not work as promised."

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