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Arizona execution lasts nearly two hours; lawyer says Joseph Wood was ‘gasping and struggling to breathe’

An undated file photograph of Joseph Wood. (Arizona Department of Corrections via AP)

The execution of a convicted murderer in Arizona lasted for nearly two hours on Wednesday, as witnesses said he gasped and snorted for much of that time before eventually dying.

This drawn-out death of Joseph R. Wood III in Arizona prompted the governor to order a review and drew renewed criticism of lethal injection, the main method of execution in the United States, just months after a high-profile botched execution in Oklahoma.

“I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dale Baich, one of Wood’s attorneys, told The Washington Post in a phone call. “Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.”

Wood was sentenced to death in 1991 for shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father, Eugene. In 1989, Wood went to a body shop where Debra and her father worked and shot Eugene Dietz in the chest; he then shot Debra twice, killing her.

He was killed at the Arizona State Prison Complex in an unusually prolonged process that immediately brought to mind lethal injections that have gone awry in recent months.

“I take comfort knowing today my pain stops, and I said a prayer that on this or any other day you may find peace in all of your hearts and may God forgive you all,” Wood said as part of his final words, according to the Associated Press.

[Related: Everything you need to know about executions in the United States.]

Wood was declared fully sedated at 1:57 p.m. and pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., almost two full hours after the medical team was first directed to administer the drugs.

During the execution, Wood’s attorneys filed a request to halt the lethal injection because he was still awake more than an hour after the process began. Baich, speaking via telephone from the parking lot of the state prison in Florence, Ariz., said Wood’s lips started to move and he was “struggling to breathe” shortly after he was deemed sedated.

Baich said he watched Wood “gasp and breathe heavily” for more than an hour and 40 minutes. But Baich said that he could not tell from his vantage point if Wood was in pain. During the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma earlier this year, witnesses reported seeing Lockett grimace, try to lift his head up and clench his jaw.

Reporters for the Associated Press and the Arizona Republic also reported seeing Wood gasp more than 600 times before dying. Michael Kiefer, a reporter for the Arizona Republic who witnessed the execution, told the Republic he counted 660 gasps.

“I just know it was not efficient,” Kiefer said. “It took a long time.”

[Related: For two hours, she watched her family’s killer die]

State officials disputed these accounts, contending that Wood was never in pain and that he was only snoring.

“I’m telling you he was snoring,” Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general’s office, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “There was no gasping or snorting. Nothing. He looked like he was asleep. This was my first execution and I have no reason to minimize this.”

Charles Ryan, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, said in a statement Wednesday night that Wood did not suffer during the execution.

“Throughout this execution, I conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress,” Ryan said.

He said that the medical team confirmed that Wood was sedated, checking eight different times in all. Ryan also said in his statement that Wood did not grimace or make any movements other than snoring.

“Physiologically, the time to complete an execution varies for each individual,” Ryan said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to conduct a review of the execution, saying in a statement that she was “concerned by the length of time” it took.

“One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” she said. “This is in stark contrast to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims — and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

Ryan has said his department will conduct a full review and awaits the results of a toxicology study and an autopsy.

Family members of Wood’s victims, who were angered that he looked at them and smiled while delivering his final words, told reporters that they did not object to the way the execution occurred.

“This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, let’s worry about the drugs,” Richard Brown told the Associated Press. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet, why didn’t we give him Drano?”

Wood was the third inmate executed in Arizona since last October and the first put to death using a combination of the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone.

Attorneys for Wood had argued that more information was needed regarding the drugs that would be used in the execution. Arizona planned to use a two-drug combination that had been used only once before in an execution. (That episode, a lethal injection in Ohio, lasted for nearly 25 minutes. Witnesses said the inmate was snorting and gasping during the process.)

A panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had agreed with Wood over the weekend, staying the execution, and the full court upheld the decision on Monday. But the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay and denied a stay request on Tuesday evening. The Supreme Court also denied a stay of execution on Wednesday. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy referred the stay request to the entire court, and it was denied without explanation.

Shortly before the scheduled injection, the state Supreme Court said it had stayed the execution so it could consider Wood’s petition. A short time later, the court announced that it had dissolved the earlier stay and was denying any motions asking for the execution to be stayed.

Death penalty opponents criticized the length of Wood’s execution, saying that Arizona should have learned from the previous episodes in Oklahoma and Ohio.

“It’s time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement. “Instead of hiding lethal injection under layers of foolish secrecy, these states need to show us where the drugs are coming from. Until they can give assurances that the drugs will work as intended, they must stop future executions.”

Wood was the first person executed this year in the state. Arizona’s last two executions, both in October 2013, used 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 executed with a three-drug mix (including midazolam hydrochloride) two weeks later.

The state changed its lethal injection protocols earlier this year. Horne’s office announced that it would allow the use of midazolam and hydromorphone to carry out the executions, a change that occurred because the state is one of many scrambling to find the drugs needed for lethal injections. This shortage has caused states to effectively experiment with different combinations and drug protocols while also discussing turning to methods of execution such as the electric chair or firing squad.

When the appeals court upheld the stay of Wood’s execution, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote a stinging dissent arguing that attacks on lethal injection stemmed from fundamental problems with the concept:

Whatever happens to Wood, the attacks will not stop and for a simple reason: The enterprise is flawed. Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moments…. But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.

Kozinski went on to argue that a return to the firing squad made the most sense, rather than continuing to rely on drugs.

“Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding blood,” he wrote.

[Last updated at 10:01 p.m. Earlier updates below.]

Update — 7:01 p.m.:

Joseph Wood died nearly two hours after the execution began, the Associated Press is reporting.

Update — 6:46 p.m.:

The execution is underway in Arizona, but lawyers for Wood have filed an emergency stay asking that the execution be halted.

According to the filing, he was declared sedated shortly before 2 p.m. (local time), but shortly after 2 p.m. began to breathe. His attorneys say Wood “has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” adding that he remains alive an hour after the execution began.

Here’s the entire filing:

Emergency Motion for Stay of Execution


The Arizona Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it had stayed the execution of Joseph R. Wood shortly before he was set to die by lethal injection, but it dissolved the stay a short time later.

Wood was sentenced to death in 1991 for shooting and killing his ex-girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father, Eugene. His execution was set for Wednesday at 10 a.m. (local time) at the state prison in Florence, Ariz.

Attorneys for Wood had argued that he needed more information about his looming execution, including details about the drugs that would be used as well as the execution team. A panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had agreed over the weekend and the full court upheld the decision on Monday, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the stay and denied a stay request on Tuesday evening.

The Supreme Court also denied a stay of execution on Wednesday. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy referred the stay request to the entire court, and it was denied without explanation.

Shortly before the scheduled execution, the state Supreme Court said it had stayed the execution so it could consider his petition. A short time later, the court announced that it had dissolved the earlier stay and was denying any motions asking for the execution to be stayed.

An attorney for Wood had said that he hoped the stay would give the court time to consider the issues Wood had raised, particularly the combination of drugs that will be utilized in the execution.

Issues involving the drugs that will be used and the medical personnel who will carry out the execution have come into play already in two different executions this year.

The two-drug combination that Arizona said it will now use for executions — utilizing medazolam and hydromorphone — was first used in a January execution in Ohio that saw 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.

Arizona has argued that it has provided all of the necessary information regarding its execution protocols.

The execution warrant for Wood is good for 24 hours. If Wood is executed, he would be the first person put to death by the state since October 2013.

Here is the order dissolving the stay:

Arizona Supreme Court – Wood stay ended

And here is the earlier stay:

Arizona Supreme Court – Wood