Governor, Prison Chief Claim There Was No Suffering in 2-Hour Execution of Joseph Wood
It took two hours to execute convicted murderer Joseph Wood yesterday, but state officials claim he never suffered.
The first use in Arizona of a new two-drug protocol for lethal injection went on so long that Wood's attorneys, federal public defenders, filed a motion in federal court seeking to stop the execution.
Twenty-five years after murdering his estranged girlfriend and her father, the execution of Wood started at the state prison in Florence at 1:52 p.m. yesterday. Wood was considered sedated by 1:57 p.m., and by 2:02 p.m., the order was given to administer the first dose of the lethal drugs.
More than an hour later, Wood still hadn't died, although a typical lethal injection usually lasts a matter of minutes. Wood's attorneys filed a motion to try to put an end to it, and were in a hearing with a federal judge by telephone by 3:27 p.m.
During the hearing, Wake was getting updates from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Zick was providing updates on Wood's state, which was gradually decreasing. At one point, Wake was told that Wood was in a coma, and later, that he was brain-dead.
Wood eventually died at 3:49 p.m., before Wake made his ruling.
After the state Attorney General's office announced Wood's death, Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan issued a statement saying Wood was never in any pain or distress:
"The Department of Corrections followed the execution protocol and, as with every execution, it was monitored by an IV team of licensed medical professionals in control of the medical procedures.
"The first confirmation that inmate Wood was fully and deeply sedated occurred at 1:57 PM, five minutes after the direction to proceed with the administration of drugs was given. The medical team re-affirmed the inmate remained deeply sedated seven additional times before death was pronounced at 3:49 PM.
"Once the inmate was sedated, other than sonorous respiration, or snoring, he did not grimace or make any further movement. Throughout this execution, I conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress.
"Physiologically, the time to complete an execution varies for each individual. The Department of Corrections will conduct a full review of the execution protocol and process. We will await the results of an independent autopsy from the Pima County Medical Examiner and we have requested a toxicology study as well."
Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer, one of only a few reporters allowed to witness the execution, did not describe an easy death in his report:
"He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed. And when the doctor came in to check on his consciousness and turned on the microphone to announce that Wood was still sedated, we could hear the sound he was making: a snoring, sucking, similar to when a swimming-pool filter starts taking in air, a louder noise than I can imitate, though I have tried.
"It was death by apnea. And it went on for an hour and a half. I made a pencil stroke on a pad of paper, each time his mouth opened, and ticked off more than 640, which was not all of them, because the doctor came in at least four times and blocked my view."
Governor Jan Brewer also issued a statement saying, in part, that "inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer."
"This 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," Brewer's statement added.
One of Wood's attorneys, Dale Baich sent us a statement saying it can't be ruled out that Wood was in pain:
"It is premature for anyone to comment on what Mr. Wood experienced during the most prolonged bungled execution in recent history, which took place last night. There is far too much that we don't know at this point, including information about the drugs, why Arizona selected these drugs and amounts, the qualifications of the execution team, and more. It is important for the people of Arizona to get answers, and only an independent investigation can provide the transparency needed following an execution cloaked in secrecy that went wrong."
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne had announced in March that the state would be switching to this new protocol, using medazolam and hydromorphone to execute people instead of pentobarbital. Pentobarbital has become increasingly hard for prisons to obtain because the pharmaceutical companies that produce it have been wanting to get out of the execution business.
In his announcement, Horne did not describe how they came up with this new combination of drugs. Wood's execution had actually been placed on hold earlier this week because the state refused to disclose certain answers about the drugs and the new execution method.
Interestingly, in Horne's announcement, he noted that Oklahoma had just instituted the same lethal injection policy. Oklahoma ended up using that injection protocol first on a man named Clayton Lockett, who died in April after the prison botched the execution -- the dosage administered to Lockett wasn't enough, the execution was called off, and Lockett died of a heart attack within the hour.
American University professor Richard Stack, who's written several books on capital punishment, tells New Times the reports of the death he's read lead him to believe there was certainly some suffering in Wood's death.
"I can't believe that an execution that took nearly two hours that the guy is snoring or peacefully existing while this poison is killing him," he says.
Although state officials have essentially said everything went okay, Stack says that doesn't send a good message.
"What example is the state sending the rest of us? That violence is a solution," he says.
Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.