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Supreme Court overturns stay, allowing Arizona execution to proceed

Joseph Wood, in an undated file photo. (Arizona Department of Corrections/AP)
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The Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a federal appeals court’s decision to stay an Arizona execution, one that had been halted due to concerns regarding the secrecy surrounding the lethal injection process.

Joseph R. Wood, who was sentenced to death in 1991 for shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father, Eugene, had filed a lawsuit requesting more information about his looming execution. Wood had asked for more details about the drugs that will be used in the lethal injection as well as more information regarding the team that will carry it out.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had agreed on Saturday, staying the execution until Arizona released that information. The full court upheld that panel’s decision on Monday, allowing the stay to remain in effect.

The Supreme Court, in a pair of brief orders released on Tuesday night, vacated the stay and denied a request for a stay of execution.

In vacating the appeals court’s stay, the Supreme Court said that a district judge who had denied Wood’s request for a stay “did not abuse his discretion.” This application to vacate the stay was presented to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and then to the entire court.

No explanation was offered for the decision to deny Wood’s request for a stay, which was also referred by Kennedy to the entire court and then denied.

The appeals court panel that had stayed the execution had agreed that more information was necessary to properly review the execution protocols that will be used to kill Wood. “We, and the public, cannot meaningfully evaluate execution protocol cloaked in secrecy,” the panel’s ruling on Saturday stated.

The two issues cited by this panel – the type of drugs used and the qualifications of the medical personnel involved — have been factors during executions this year. The two-drug combination that Arizona will use (medazolam and hydromorphone) was used in a January execution in Ohio that caused an inmate to choke, gasp and take nearly 25 minutes to die. Meanwhile, after an inmate grimaced and writhed during a botched lethal injection in Oklahoma, an independent autopsy found that the execution team failed to place the IV properly.

After the full appeals court upheld the decision on Monday, the state of Arizona petitioned the Supreme Court to vacate the stay.

“Arizona provides all the information necessary to further any public debate regarding its protocol,” the petition said.

Wood would be the first person put to death by Arizona this year. The state 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.

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 medazolam and hydromorphone to carry out the executions.

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.

“If Mr. Wood’s execution moves forward, it will proceed with serious questions remaining about the drugs used and the training and expertise of the execution team,” Dale Baich, one of Wood’s attorneys, said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Barring any other action, Arizona plans to execute Wood on Wednesday.

Here is the Supreme Court order vacating the appeals court’s stay:

Supreme Court – Wood – Stay Overturned

Here is the Supreme Court order declining to stay the execution:

Supreme Court – Wood – Stay Denied