PHOENIX - The Wednesday afternoon execution of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood III took nearly two hours, confirming concerns that had been raised by his attorneys about a controversial drug used by the state of Arizona.
Wood remained alive at Arizona's state prison in Florence long enough for his public defenders to file an emergency motion for a stay of execution with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, after the process began at 1:53 p.m. MST. The motion noted that Wood "has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour" after being injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs.
According to Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer, who witnessed the execution, lines were run into each of Wood's arms. After Wood said his last words, he was unconscious by 1:57 p.m. At about 2:05, he started gasping, Kiefer said.
"I counted about 660 times he gasped," Kiefer said. "That petered out by 3:33. The death was called at 3:49."
"I just know it was not efficient. It took a long time," Kiefer said.
Another reporter who witnessed the execution, Troy Hayden, said it was "very disturbing to watch ... like a fish on shore gulping for air."
Typically, executions by lethal injection take about 10 minutes. Dale Baich of the Federal Public Defender's Office in Phoenix said "the experiment failed."
The Arizona Supreme Court had lifted a temporary stay of double-murderer Wood's execution shortly before noon Wednesday, clearing the way for his execution later in the day. Wood had been scheduled to die at 10 a.m. Wednesday, but the court halted the process for long enough to consider a last-minute petition for post-conviction relief. Witnesses were told when the stay was issued to return by 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Wood, 55, killed two people in 1989.
The latest petition initially was filed in Pima County Superior Court after a federal appellate court's stay was lifted Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court. It argued that Wood had ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial, and also challenged Arizona's lethal-injection protocol and the drug cocktail used in executions.
Pima County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Lee dismissed Wood's first argument, but sent the question of Arizona's lethal-injection protocol to the state high court.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld Arizona's veil of secrecy around its lethal-injection drugs, permitting plans for the execution to proceed.
The high-court ruling knocked down a federal appeals court decision that the execution could not move forward unless the state turned over information about how the execution would be carried out.
Executions are public events. But in recent years, many states that still have capital punishment, including Arizona, have passed or expanded laws that shroud the procedures in secrecy.
The Arizona Department of Corrections plannd to use a controversial drug, and it favors a controversial method of administering it, so Wood's attorneys demanded to know the qualifications of the executioners and the origin of the drugs to be used in the execution, claiming that Wood had a First Amendment right to the information.
On Saturday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which lifted the stay without addressing the First Amendment issue.
State officials said in court filings that they need to maintain secrecy because publicity has made it more difficult to obtain the drugs needed to carry out executions.
Drug manufacturers have begun refusing to sell to departments of corrections, forcing the departments to experiment with new and less reliable drugs or to specially order them from compounding pharmacies, which in turn are harassed by anti-death-penalty activists.
In January, an Ohio prisoner who received a cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone gasped for air and took more than 20 minutes to die, compared with the usual 10 minutes or so when prisoners are executed with thiopental or pentobarbital.
And during an April execution in Oklahoma, the condemned man at first appeared to be unconscious, but then began "writhing and bucking," one eyewitness wrote.
He kicked his legs and tried to sit up while muttering words the witnesses couldn't understand.
The execution was stopped, but the man subsequently died of an apparent heart attack.
Human error, not midazolam was blamed — the doctor who inserted the catheter into the prisoner's groin area went completely through the femoral artery into the surrounding tissues.