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Lethal Injection

Executed Killer Joseph Wood Died In Middle of Emergency Hearing

An unidentified Arizona Corrections Officer adjusts the straps on the gurney used for lethal injections at the Florence Death House at the Arizona State Prison at Florence in this undated photo provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections.Arizona Dept. of Corrections via AP file

An Arizona judge was in the middle of an emergency telephone hearing on the execution of Joseph Wood when word came that the inmate had finally died after more than an hour of what witnesses have described as gasping.

A transcript of the hearing shows that 45 minutes after defense lawyers filed a motion asking that Wood's execution be stopped because he was still alive, no decision had been made.

The parties — U.S. District Judge Neil Wake, a lawyer from the state attorney general's office, and Wood's attorney — were discussing whether stopping the execution would cause pain when the question became moot.

"I just learned that the IV team leader has confirmed Mr. Wood's death," said Jeff Zick, an attorney for the state.

1:56

Wood, 55, was executed Wednesday with an injection of midazolam and hydromorphone that Arizona had never tried before, using drugs obtained under a shroud of secrecy.

The process took nearly two hours, with a member of the medical team checking eight times to see if the double-murderer was still alive, state officials said.

Midway through the execution, Wood's legal team filed for an emergency stay of execution and asked the court to order prison officials to try to resuscitate him.

The judge was summoned from a meeting, and Wood's lawyer Robin Konrad told him by phone that since her client had been sedated at 1:57 p.m., "he has been gasping, snorting, and unable to breathe and not dying."

The court got Zick on the phone, and he reported that the medical team at the prison had declared that Wood was "effectively brain dead."

"This is the type of reaction that one gets if they were taken off of life support. The brain stem is working but there's no brain," Zick said.

Under further questioning from the judge, he confirmed that the determination was made by a visual exam and not any brain-activity monitoring — which Wake said was "concerning as not being adequate.'

The call was put on hold for a few minutes while Zick called the prison for information on how the execution team planned to proceed. When it resumed, he reported that Wood was no longer breathing and his heart rate was down to 20.

"The director indicated that in consultation with the IV team leader, who is a medical doctor, Mr. Wood is apparently comatose; that he cannot change course at this point, and the plan, I suppose, is to push chemicals based on the input from the IV team leader," Zick said.

Zick also said that the prisoner was not suffering.

"In talking with the "Department of Corrections] director, who has been in consultation with the IV team leader, there has been no appearance of any pain," he said.

The judge said Wood's pain level was his primary concern.

"If it were possible to suspend this in a better circumstance, I would be disposed to do that if it did not create even more risk of pain," the judge said. "It is not appearing to me that that is a realistic possibility at this time."

After Wood's death was reported, the judge said he wanted to make it clear that he made no ruling on whether the condemned man was in pain during the execution.

"I am not finding that there was not pain before. I'm not finding that at all," he said. "I did not want you to misunderstand me as suggesting that there had been a lack of pain before.

"That is a matter that may come before the Court in a plenary matter soon."

1:45

Both the Department of Corrections and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said after Wood's death that they are certain he was not in pain, but one of the dead man's lawyers said that remains to be seen.

"It is premature for anyone to comment on what Mr. Wood experienced during the most prolonged bungled execution in recent history, which took place last night," attorney Dale Baich said in a statement.

"There is far too much that we don't know at this point, including information about the drugs, why Arizona selected these drugs and amounts, the qualifications of the execution team, and more. It is important for the people of Arizona to get answers, and only an independent investigation can provide the transparency needed following an execution cloaked in secrecy that went wrong."

Brewer has called for a review, but it will be carried out by state corrections officials, with Pima County Medical Examiner Gregory Hess performing the autopsy.

Hess told NBC News that the cause of death is pending until toxicology reports come back, "but we saw nothing unusual."

Asked about the 600-plus gasps counted by witnesses, he said, "That's not unusual as a person is dying. It's almost like a reflex on the part of the body.

"We saw nothing unusual or out of line in the post-mortem."

Bob Richardson contributed to this report.