Arizona Death Penalty Still in Limbo After Botched Execution

After it took two hours and 15 doses of lethal-injection drugs for the state to execute convicted murderer Joseph Wood in July, the state's death penalty procedure is still in limbo.

A lawsuit in federal court, filed by both current death-row prisoners and a legal group representing media organizations, challenges various aspects of the state's lethal-injection protocol. At a status conference today, Judge Neil Wake suggested there may be no way right now for the state to execute anyone.

As Wake put it, "There seems to be a great deal of uncertainty, to put it in a great understatement."

See also: -Prison Officials Violated Protocol by Giving 15 Doses of Lethal Drug, Attorney Says

When the state executed Wood in July, it was using a new combination of drugs, due to a shortage of the usual lethal drugs.

Federal public defender Dale Baich, who represented Wood, has referred to the execution as "an experiment that failed."

Reporters who witnessed the execution described Wood gasping for air hundreds of times, although Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan says Wood was unconscious the entire time and never in pain.

However, as Wood failed to die, his attorneys attempted to get a judge to halt the execution. Wood's condition continued to deteriorate as attorneys were on the phone with the federal judge, and Wood eventually died before the judge made his ruling to let the execution continue.

It wasn't revealed to Baich until later that it had taken 15 doses to kill Wood, and Baich insists that his reading of the execution protocol says that only one additional dose is permitted.

Governor Jan Brewer ordered an independent investigation into the execution, and an assistant Arizona attorney general said today that the report is due in mid-November.

The lethal injection policy could change based on that report, but the assistant AG conceded that no executions will be scheduled until the investigative process is complete.

Although the state has more of the drugs used to kill Wood, Wake found it hard to believe that the state would attempt that type of execution again.

Thus, Wake suggested the state doesn't have a way to execute anyone, even if it wanted to.

Wake voiced reservations about this lawsuit moving forward, but attorneys for the various plaintiffs in the case explained they all have something at stake here, even though there's no imminent execution. The First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, representing media organizations, is seeking the release of information related to the state's executions, while the prisoners want a court-ordered ban on Arizona using its current lethal-injection protocol, among other things.

"Arizona's improvised and unprecedented two-hour execution of Joseph Wood has laid bare fundamental flaws in Arizona's attempts to implement its lethal injection statute," the complaint states (See the full complaint embedded below.) "Without significant changes, ordered and supervised by this Court, Defendants will continue to abuse its discretion and violate the Constitution, with a substantial risk of imposing more experiments in human execution with similarly ghastly results, and of doing so without outside public knowledge or meaningful media scrutiny."

Arizona Lethal Injection Lawsuit

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley