Arizona's governor has ordered a review of Wednesday's two-hour execution of a gasping prisoner, but it's unclear what the fallout will be as the debate over lethal injection cranks up again.
The botched April 29 lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma stalled some executions, but five inmates have been put to death in other states since then.
After the Lockett debacle, President Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct a review of execution protocols across the country, but that is still under way.
And the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet prevented an execution because a state would not reveal the source of its injection drugs — the issue underlying most recent inmate challenges.
In fact, the high court green-lighted Arizona's execution of Joseph Wood, lifting a stay that had been put in place by a lower court over the drug secrecy issue.
Wood's execution marked the first time the Arizona Department of Corrections used a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone to kill a prisoner — the same injection used in a protracted Ohio execution that also featured gasping.
Corrections officials themselves will conduct the review ordered by Gov. Jan Brewer. The Pima County Medical Examiner would perform an "independent autopsy" and toxicology study, a Brewer spokeswoman said.
Media witnesses said it began as expected, with Wood falling into a slumber — but seven minutes in, he began what several people described as “gasping.”
“It was almost like snoring,” Associated Press reporter Astrid Galvan said. “It looked like he was yawning almost.”
Wood would go on to gasp more than 600 times over the course of an hour and 40 minutes, witnesses said. One witness likened it to the movements a fish makes when it's taken out of water.
"At a certain point you wondered if he ever was going to die," reporter Troy Hayden said.
The family of Wood's victims — he was convicted of killing girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father, Eugene, in 1989 — insisted he never gasped but was just breathing deeply while unconscious.
“I don't believe he was suffering,” said Dietz's sister, Jeannie Brown. “Who really suffered was my dad and my sister when they were killed.”
Her husband, Richard Brown, who witnessed the murders, blasted the media witnesses for suggesting that the execution was botched. “Why didn't we give him Drano?” he asked.
State officials also focused on the details of Wood's crime — not his death.
An initial announcement from Arizona Attorney General Thom Horne said only that the execution started at 1:52 p.m. and ended at 3:49 p.m. before recounting the double-murder.
The governor later said she was “concerned” about the length of the execution and was ordering a review but was “certain" he died in a lawful manner and “did not suffer.”
The Department of Corrections said what had been described as gasping was actually “sonorous respiration, or snoring” and that the IV team never saw signs of pain or distress during the eight times they checked on Wood.
Midway through the execution, Wood's lawyers asked an Arizona federal court to stop the procedure and order prison officials to resuscitate their client, but the judges did not act before he was pronounced dead.
Last weekend, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had put the execution on hold, finding that Arizona's refusal to provide details about the drugs it uses violated the First Amendment right of access to governmental process.
The ruling was also notable for a dissent in which the chief judge said lethal injections were a misguided attempt to sanitize what were actually “brutal, savage events” and that the guillotine would be better.
That same judge predicted the U.S. Supreme Court would allow the execution to go forward, which it did the next day.
The execution has been decried by the ACLU and a group of conservatives and libertarians who are critical of capital punishment.
“After last night’s botched execution in Arizona and the national spate of executions marred by mistakes, it appears that the government cannot execute someone without committing serious errors," Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty said in a statement.
"This is a perfect example of why an inherently fallible system run by human beings must be limited especially when the system is veiled in secrecy."
First published July 24 2014, 5:26 AM