Appeals court delays Arizona execution, tells state to reveal more about drugs that will be used

July 21, 2014

A federal appeals court has stayed an execution set to take place in Arizona this week, halting the lethal injection until the state tells the inmate more about the drugs that will be used.

Joseph R. Wood was scheduled to die by lethal injection Wednesday. Wood was sentenced to death in 1991 for shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father, Eugene.

The ruling was issued by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, with one judge dissenting. While the ruling notes that it does not consider the merits of Wood’s case, the judges highlighted “the ongoing and intensifying debate over lethal injection in this country” and the importance of providing detailed information about how the death penalty is actually carried out.

“Information concerning execution protocol is not only of general interest to the public, it is important for consideration by the courts. … We, and the public, cannot meaningfully evaluate execution protocol cloaked in secrecy,” the ruling states.

In addition, the judges wrote that the execution will be stayed until the state has provided more information about the qualifications of the medical personnel who will actually carry out the lethal injection. (An independent autopsy looking into a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma earlier this year found that the execution team failed to place the IV properly, suggesting that the problems were with the IV and the execution team rather than the drugs.)

This ruling also comes at a time when the secrecy surrounding the lethal injection process is coming under increasing scrutiny. Media organizations filed a lawsuit in May attempting to force the state of Missouri to reveal the source of its lethal injection drugs. Missouri’s attorney general, Chris Koster, said in a speech the same month that while the secrecy surrounding the state’s process “is legal, it may not be prudent.”

“Today the Court has made a well-reasoned ruling affirming the core First Amendment principles regarding the public’s right to know, which aid all parts of our democratic government,” Dale Baich, an attorney for Wood, said in a statement after the stay was announced on Saturday.

Arizona’s default method of execution is lethal injection, though the state does allow certain inmates to request the gas chamber. The state changed its lethal injection protocols earlier this year; the office of Tom Horne, the state’s attorney general, announced that it would allow the use of two drugs (medazolam and hydromorphone) to carry out the executions.

“The two-drug protocol has already been used in Ohio, and Arizona will be using an even greater concentration,” said the March announcement.

The Ohio execution mentioned in the announcement, the first (and, so far, only) execution to use this two-drug protocol, did not go smoothly. Witnesses said that Dennis McGuire — who admitted to raping and murdering a pregnant newlywed named Joy Stewart — choked and gasped for several minutes before he died during his execution in January. It took nearly 25 minutes for McGuire to die, an episode that drew widespread attention. (A state review found that McGuire did not suffer during the execution, but it still noted that it would increase the dosage of the two drugs, raising questions as to why they would need to alter the process if nothing went wrong.)

And this situation in Ohio occurred three months before Oklahoma’s botched lethal execution of Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer who grimaced and writhed on the gurney; his execution was halted, but he still died a short time later. Oklahoma is conducting an independent review and executions in the state have been delayed.  The botch in Oklahoma, which drew even more attention to how executions are carried out in the United States, was followed by nearly two months without an execution in the country. (After that stretch, three executions were carried out in three different states in less than 24 hours.)

If Arizona does wind up executing Wood, he would be the first person executed this year in the state. Arizona last carried out an execution in October 2013, killing two inmates with two different types of lethal injections: Edward Schad was put to death with an injection of one drug (pentobarbital) on Oct. 9, while Robert Jones was put to death with a three-drug mix (including midazolam hydrochloride) two weeks later.

The change in Arizona’s lethal injection protocols occurred because the state is one of many scrambling to find the drugs needed for lethal injections, which has caused states to effectively experiment with different combinations and drug protocols. (Ohio used the medazolam-hydromorphone combination for the first time in January because of the drug shortages.)

It is worth noting that Wood’s execution warrant is good for a 24-hour period, which may become a factor in case the stay is overturned and the issue is considered by higher courts. A scheduled Missouri execution was recently halted with hours to spare, allowed to proceed, halted and then, finally, stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court — with much of this occurring during the 24-hour period covered by the execution warrant. (This meant that even though it had been halted twice, if the Supreme Court decided the execution could proceed, it could have happened that same day; one of the inmate’s attorneys described this judicial back-andofrth as “pretty nerve-wracking.”)

Here is the ruling regarding Wood’s stay:

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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