UPDATE July 22: The Supreme Court has lifted the stay of execution. Read the latest at the bottom of this post.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily halted the execution of an Arizona death-row inmate as he attempts to get information about the state's new lethal-injection method.
The state plans to execute Joseph R. Wood for the 1989 murders of his estranged girlfriend and her father, but the state just recently announced that it would be using a new combination of drugs for executions.
The first use of this new combination was earlier this year in Ohio, and it didn't go so well. According to the Associated Press account:
A condemned man appeared to gasp several times and took an unusually long time to die -- more than 20 minutes -- in an execution carried out Thursday with a combination of drugs never before tried in the U.S. . . .
McGuire, 53, made loud snorting noises during one of the longest executions since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999. Nearly 25 minutes passed between the time the lethal drugs began flowing and McGuire was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m.
Executions under the old method were typically much shorter and did not cause the kind of sounds McGuire made.
The same combination led to a botched execution in Oklahoma in late April.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne announced a couple months after the first incident that Arizona would be using the same new drug combination, because the supplier of the previously used drug has stopped selling to U.S. prisons. Several other states have done the same.
Wood's case actually hinges on his attorneys' requests for more information about the drugs. It took several attempts to clarify with the Department of Corrections which drugs it would be using, and the state still refuses to release some information about the drugs that will be used, including:
(1) the source(s), manufacturer(s), National Drug Codes ("NDCs"), and lot numbers of the drugs the Department intends to use in his execution; (2) non-personally identifying information detailing the qualifications of the personnel the Department will use in his execution; and (3) information and documents explaining how the Department developed its current lethal-injection drug protocol.
Wood claims his First Amendment rights are being violated as the state withholds that information.
The majority of the appeals court panel ruled that Woods "has presented serious questions," and cited several related Supreme Court cases, including one that decided:
""that the public enjoys a First Amendment right to view executions from the moment the condemned is escorted into the execution chamber, including those 'initial procedures' that are inextricably intertwined with the process of putting the condemned inmate to death," and "[to] determine whether lethal injection executions are fairly and humanely administered, or whether they ever can be, citizens must have reliable information about the 'initial procedures,' which are invasive, possibly painful and may give rise to serious complications."
Wood was supposed to be executed this week, which could still happen, but not as long as the appellate court's injunction stays in effect, and the state refuses to release the requested information.
The majority opinion from the appellate court generally says that the public should have a lot of information about such executions, and points out a long history of releasing seemingly minute details about execution methods:
" . . . more information about the drugs used in lethal injections can help an alert public make better informed decisions about the changing standards of decency in this country surrounding lethal injection. Knowing the source and manufacturer of the drugs, along with the lot numbers and NDCs, allows the public to discern whether state corrections departments are using safe and reliable drug manufacturers. Similarly, knowing the specific qualifications of those who will perform the execution will give the public more confidence than a state's generic assurance that executions will be administered safely and pursuant to certain qualifications and standards.
UPDATE 2:42 p.m.: The stay on the execution remains in effect today. Here's a statement we got from Wood's attorney Dale Baich: "The Ninth Circuit has correctly recognized the importance of the information Joseph Wood seeks. Without greater transparency from the state, it's impossible for the public to engage in informed debate, which is the cornerstone of democracy. We look forward to Arizona's compliance with this ruling."
UPDATE July 22 4:44 p.m.: The Supreme Court has lifted the stay of execution. Wood is scheduled to be executed tomorrow morning.
Here's the statement issued by his attorney, Baich:
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"The secrecy which Arizona has fought tooth and nail to protect is harmful to our democracy because it prevents the public, the courts and the condemned from knowing if executions are carried out in compliance with all state and federal laws. If Mr. Wood's execution moves forward, it will proceed with serious questions remaining about the drugs used and the training and expertise of the execution team. Furthermore, Arizona's new protocol constitutes an experiment with drugs used on human beings. This country's recent history of botched executions conducted in secrecy and with experimental drug combinations should give all of us pause."
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