Arizona scraps drug cocktail after two-hour execution

The lethal injection chamber at a prison in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo by Q. Sakamaki/Redux)
The lethal injection chamber at a prison in Phoenix, Ariz.

Arizona is scrapping the lethal injection protocol used in the execution of Joseph Wood, which lasted nearly two hours and took 15 doses. Officials announced the change Monday after a state-commissioned review of the troubling July execution, even as they insisted it was "handled appropriately."

The Department of Corrections will no longer use the two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone and will instead rely on a three-drug cocktail that includes midazolam. The agency also has one-drug protocols, but it hasn't been able to obtain those chemicals because manufacturers refuse to sell them to put prisoners to death.

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Witnesses to Wood's execution described him gasping for more than an hour, and an emergency hearing on whether to stop the procedure and try to resuscitate him was under way when the inmate was finally pronounced dead. In a statement Monday, Corrections Director Charles Ryan said an outside review of the execution showed it was "done appropriately and with the utmost professionalism."

"This independent review concluded that at all times following the administration of the execution protocol the inmate was fully sedated, was totally unresponsive to stimuli, and as a result did not suffer," he added. "In fact, the Pima County medical examiner is cited as reporting that the breathing pattern exhibited by the inmate prior to his death is a normal bodily response to dying, even in someone highly sedated."

Dale Baich, a lawyer for Wood, said the probe did not explain why the drugs did not work the way prison officials intended.

"The state should release all of the documentation and witness reports that went into this review. Only through discovery in a court of law will there be a truly independent and comprehensive examination of what went wrong during Mr. Wood's nearly two-hour execution," he said.

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The three-drug protocol that Arizona now plans to use — midazolam, the paralytic vecuronium bromide and the heart-stopper potassium chloride — is the same combination that Oklahoma used in the botched execution of Clayton Lockett earlier in the year. An investigation found improper placement of the IV, and not the drugs themselves, caused that debacle, in which Lockett regained consciousness.