The prolonged Arizona execution used 15 doses of lethal injection drugs

August 4, 2014

An undated file photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections showing the gurney used for lethal injections at the Arizona State Prison at Florence, Ariz. (via AP)

The execution of convicted murderer Joseph R. Wood III in Arizona last month stretched out for nearly two hours, a drawn-out process that drew calls to end the death penalty and prompted an official investigation. This execution also required more than a dozen doses of each lethal injection drug, far exceeding the two doses explicitly mentioned in the state’s execution protocol.

Charles Ryan, head of the Arizona Department of Corrections, announced on Friday that the review of Wood’s execution had begun. In addition, the department released some information regarding the execution — in particular, new details about how the execution unfolded, including the volume of drugs utilized during the process.

Wood was given 15 doses of the fatal drugs on July 23. Arizona injected him with 750 milligrams of midazolam and another 750 milligrams of hydromorphone in total, the department said. The state’s official two-drug execution protocol, which was announced in March, calls for 50 milligrams of midazolam and 50 milligrams of hydromorphone per dose (as well as a total of 120 milliliters of heparin/saline). Wood was the first inmate executed in Arizona using this two-drug combination, which was adopted because of the lethal injection drug shortage affecting states across the country.

An activity log from the Arizona Department of Corrections (given to attorneys for Wood by the state and released on Friday) outlines how the execution unfolded, documenting all 15 doses of the drugs that were injected into Wood over a total of 114 minutes.

The first injection began at 1:52 p.m. and ended at 1:54 p.m. The second injection was administered from 2:08 to 2:10 p.m. Following that, the injections continued every so often, some in quick succession. By the time Wood’s attorneys filed for an emergency stay of execution, writing that Wood was “gasping and snorting for more than an hour” and was still conscious as of 3:02 p.m., the ninth drug protocol was injected.

At 3:27 p.m. (Arizona time), Wood’s attorneys filed a stay request with Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. This was shortly before three different injections of the fatal drug — the 11th, 12th and 13th drug doses — were administered between 3:31 and 3:37 p.m.

The 15th and final injection was completed at 3:46 p.m., the same time that Wood’s lawyers were told that Kennedy had denied the stay request. Three minutes later, Wood was pronounced dead.

Arizona’s official protocol states that if the inmate remains conscious three minutes into the execution process, the head of the Department of Corrections will decide if the procedure can keep going or if it should be halted. It also makes one note regarding regarding an additional dose of the lethal drugs:

If deemed appropriate, the Director may instruct the Special Operations Team to administer an additional dose of the lethal chemical(s) followed by the Heparin/Saline flush.

Following that, the protocol says that after the backup execution drugs and saline are injected, the IV team will confirm that the inmate is unconscious. The next note in the protocol refers to what to do when all heart activity has stopped.

There is also guidance regarding contingencies for the execution, including a note that if the execution does not seem to be going according to plan, the head of the Department of Corrections can decide if the process will keep going or stop. It does not state whether this determination includes additional doses of the lethal drugs, nor does it state how long the execution should take.

The Department of Corrections said in a news release on Friday that Ryan conferred with the IV team, which included a doctor, and directed the additional doses of drugs be utilized to make sure the inmate remained sedated and did not suffer any pain. The execution warrant for Wood noted that he would be killed “by intraveneous injection a substance or substances in a quantity sufficient to cause death,” and the Department of Corrections said that the review complied with this directive.

“I am committed to a thorough, transparent and comprehensive review process,” Ryan said in a statement. “This will be an authoritative review to ensure that fact-based conclusions are reached regarding every aspect of this procedure, including the length of time it took for the execution to be lawfully completed.”

Officials in Arizona have defended the execution, with Ryan saying that initial medical evidence showed that it was carried out correctly. Ryan and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) issued statements stressing that Wood did not suffer. But Brewer said in a statement after the execution that she was “concerned by the length of time,” while Ryan said that the state will not seek to carry out any executions while the review is ongoing.

Wood’s attorney has called for an independent investigation.

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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