Death Row

Arizona's New Lethal-Injection Drugs Don't Guard Against Botched Executions, Critics Declare

More than a year after the use of an experimental-drug cocktail left an inmate gasping on the executioner’s gurney for nearly two hours, the Arizona Department of Corrections has revised its lethal-injection protocols — but prisoner advocates say the changes won’t fix the problem. 

“When the prisoner is paralyzed, he’ll experience a feeling of suffocation like a horse sitting on his chest. Then, when the third drug is administered, it’ll be like liquid fire going through his veins." — Federal Public Defender Dale Baich

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When Joseph Wood was put to death in July 2014, he was given a cocktail of midazolam, a valium-like drug intended to sedate him, and the narcotic hydromorphone, to shut down his respiration. When the mixture failed to kill him in a timely manner, officials re-administered the drugs 15 times. Witnesses counted more than 600 tortured breaths while his attorneys scrambled unsuccessfully to halt the procedure.

Arizona historically has relied on sodium thiopental for executions but has struggled to find an acceptable replacement since the U.S. distributor ceased production in 2010. The FDA has not approved the drug for importation; however, state officials twice have been caught attempting to illegally smuggle it into the states from overseas.

The new protocol, issued in response to a lawsuit calling for more transparency in Arizona’s capital punishment process, trades the hydromorphone used on Wood for potassium chloride, and adds a drug to prompt paralysis. However, it relies on the same sedative, midazolam.

Arizona Federal Public Defender Dale Baich argues that midazolam isn’t strong enough to ensure inmates remain unconscious throughout the execution process.

“If the sedative wears off when the prisoner is paralyzed, he’ll experience a feeling of suffocation like a horse sitting on his chest,” he said. “Then, when the third drug is administered, it’ll be like liquid fire going through his veins. It is excruciatingly painful.”

Before the debacle with Wood, midazolam was used in two other high-profile botched executions in 2014.

The traditional cocktail of drugs, when properly administered, completes its lethal job in about five to 10 minutes, but with an experimental cocktail including midazolam, it took Ohio’s Dennis McGuire 26 minutes to die. A witness to his execution compared him to “a fish lying along the shore puffing for that one gasp of air that would allow it to breathe.” A few months later, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett raised his head and said, “Oh, man . . . I’m not . . .”  then continued to writhe, groan, convulse, and try to rise from the table for 43 minutes after he was shot up with midazolam.

The Arizona Department of Corrections declined to comment on its new protocols.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June, though, ruled 5-4 that the use of midazolam as a sedative during executions does not violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, saying the group of inmates behind the challenge had failed to “establish that the method creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain and that the risk is substantial when compared to the known and available alternatives.”

Arizona’s new protocol also allows for journalists to watch over closed-circuit television as a prisoner enters the death chamber, is strapped to the gurney, and is injected with the catheters carrying the lethal drugs. At that point, the curtains will be opened and witnesses will be allowed to watch the execution through a window. Previously, witnesses could not tune in until the catheters were inserted.

“No one is above the law — certainly not the state agency whose charge is to punish those who break the law. But they do what they damn well please." — Dan Peitzmeyer, Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona

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The inmate’s attorneys also will be permitted to bring a cell phone and computer into the prison so they can move quickly to halt the execution should things turn sour.

Dan Peitzmeyer, a board member with the grassroots advocacy group Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona, said he was “delighted” by the move toward greater transparency.

“As it’s written, it’s beautiful,” he said.

But he has little faith that the Department of Corrections will be so open in practice, he said, pointing to the department’s recent tangle with the FDA over its attempts to smuggle sodium thiopental, a more effective anesthetic than midazolam, into the country.

The agency, working with local U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to skirt the ban on drug imports, paid $27,000 to obtain 1,000 vials of the anesthetic in July. Because many reputable manufacturers in Europe have blocked state governments from purchasing sodium thiopental, according to a recent Buzzfeed News investigation, Arizona may have turned to India, where a salesman without a pharmaceutical background is charging states seven times the retail price for drugs of questionable origin. The FDA flagged the shipment when it arrived at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

“No one is above the law — certainly not the state agency whose charge is to punish those who break the law,” Peitzmeyer said. “But they do what they damn well please.” 

Executions, which were put on hold following Wood's death, will not resume until the department resolves the lawsuit with the U.S. Public Defenders Office.  

Editors Note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the effects of  the drug hydromorphone and the manner in which it was administered to Joseph Wood. It has been corrected. 
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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart