Arizona corrections officials have announced that the state has procured a supply of an execution drug and is now able to resume executions after a nearly seven-year hiatus.

David Shinn, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (ADCRR), notified Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich that the prison had obtained pentobarbital and “now stands ready to commence the execution process.”

The last execution in Arizona took place on July 23, 2014, when the state injected 15 doses of midazolam and hydromorphone into Joseph Wood over the course of a two-hour execution. Witnesses reported that Wood gasped and snorted more than 600 times during the execution. The same two-drug protocol had been implicated in Ohio’s botched execution of Dennis McGuire earlier in 2014. Subsequent litigation forced the state to abandon that execution protocol. It announced plans to use a single-drug protocol of the barbiturate pentobarbital but could not obtain a supply of the drug. Prisoners also challenged the state’s secrecy statute. After a mixed ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the media had a First Amendment right to witness the execution but not to know the identity of the drug supplier, the suit was settled on June 26, 2020. Under that settlement, the state agreed to allow witnesses to see and hear the entirety of the execution, while keeping the identity of its drug suppliers secret.

An estimated 22 Arizona death-row prisoners have exhausted their appeals and face possible execution.

ADCRR did not say how much pentobarbital it had obtained and, in keeping with the state’s secrecy policy, did not reveal the source of the drugs. In October, the state said it had found a compounding pharmacy that would supply the drugs. Major pharmaceutical companies that produce pentobarbital and other execution drugs have expressed their opposition to the use of their products in executions and have implemented distribution restrictions to prevent prisons from purchasing the drugs. Arizona joins Texas and other states in purchasing pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies. The federal government also used compounded pentobarbital in the 13 executions it carried out in 2020 and 2021, but it is unclear who supplied the drug.

Arizona had previously engaged in illegal practices in its efforts to purchase execution drugs. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration seized a shipment of sodium thiopental at the Phoenix airport. The state had attempted to import the drug from Harris Pharma, a supplier in India that had falsely claimed to have produced the drug, when it had actually purchased it from another manufacturer and resold it at a significant markup.

Dale Baich, chief of the federal defender capital habeas unit in the Arizona federal defender’s office, said his team will need more time to determine whether to challenge the state’s new plan in court. “As more information becomes available, we will continue to assess the situation with regard to the safety and efficacy of the drugs, the legitimacy of the supply and the readiness of the (corrections) department to go forward,” Baich said.

Recent autopsy studies and evidence from the federal executions have shown that most prisoners executed with pentobarbital experience flash pulmonary edema, a condition in which their lungs fill with fluid while they are still conscious, causing them to experience what doctors say is an excruciating sensation likened to waterboarding and drowning.


Lauren Castle, Arizona ready to exe­cute death row inmates, cor­rec­tions direc­tor says, Arizona Republic, March 5, 2021; Jacques Billeaud, Arizona finds death penal­ty drug after hia­tus in exe­cu­tions, Associated Press, March 5, 2021; Danielle Haynes, Arizona secures sup­pli­er for death penal­ty drug, UPI, March 62021