What Went Wrong in Arizona's Execution

The lethal injection chamber at Eyman Prison in Phoenix, Arizona.
The lethal injection chamber at Eyman Prison in Phoenix, Arizona.

“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.”

-Judge Alex Kozinski

9th Circuit Court of Appeals

In perhaps the most horrifying example of a series of horrifying executions, the State of Arizona took nearly 2 hours to execute death row inmate Joseph R. Wood III Wednesday. 

Wood's execution began at 1:52 PM MT According to witnesses, the first 7 minutes or so went according to plan. Wood closed his eyes and apparently went to sleep. But it didn't stay that way. As Arizona Republic Reporter Michael Kiefer--an eyewitness--described, “He started gasping, and he gasped for more than an hour and half. When the doctor would come in to check his consciousness, he would turn the mic on you could hear a deep snoring--sucking air—sound…The whole process well probably took about two hours from start to finish.”

Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 PM MT, just shy of two hours after the botched execution began. Wood's lawyers filed an emergency appeal to stop the execution while he was still on the gurney, but he died before the judge could issue a decision.

Thursday, a spokeswoman for Arizona Governor Jan Brewer announced a full review of the Department Of Corrections' process and protocols, along with an independent autopsy and toxicology study.

So how could an execution go so horribly wrong? In 2011, Hospira, the lone American producer of a key lethal injection chemical--sodium thiopental--stopped making the drug. Later that year, the European Union issued an export ban on the drug, and NOW the U.S. is the only G7 country to execute its citizenry.

Since then, states have been experimenting with increasingly risky, secretive drug cocktails. In April, an Oklahoma man, Clayton Lockett, struggled in pain on the gurney for over 43 minutes--before succumbing. The sedative used in Lockett's gruesome execution--midazolam— was the same one used on Joseph Wood Wednesday. Midazolam is typically used as anesthesia in short-term medical procedures like colonoscopies. Before this year, it was untested as a lethal drug.

But the increasing secrecy and brutality of executions may have an unintended effect. While the Supreme Court has found that the death penalty does not violate the Constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment in some circumstances, they have yet to rule directly on lethal injection in its current practice.