Lethal Injection

Arizona Repeated Execution Protocol 15 Times Before Inmate Died

On August 1, the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) released 330 pages of documents related to the execution of Joseph Wood on July 23. Although not a report on why the execution took nearly 2 hours to complete, the documents reveal that Wood was injected with 15 consecutive doses (50 mg each) of midazolam and hydromorphone, far more than indicated in the state's protocol. Dale Baich, an attorney for Wood, said, “The Arizona execution protocol explicitly states that a prisoner will be executed using 50 milligrams of hydromorphone and 50 milligrams of midazolam. The execution logs released today by the Arizona Department of Corrections show that the experimental drug protocol did not work as promised.” Prison officials had estimated that the drugs would take about 10 minutes to kill Wood. Charles Ryan, director of the DOC, responded to calls for an independent investigation of the execution, saying, “I am committed to a thorough, transparent and comprehensive review process. This will be an authoritative review to ensure that fact-based conclusions are reached regarding every aspect of this procedure, including the length of time it took for the execution to be lawfully completed.”

NEW VOICES: Attorney General Criticizes Secrecy in Lethal Injections

On July 31, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about the death penalty review underway at the Department of Justice and the need for greater transparency in lethal injection methods. Holder said he was "greatly troubled" by the recent botched executions, adding that states should provide more information about the drugs they plan to use. He said, "[F]or the state to exercise that greatest of all powers, to end a human life, it seems to me... that transparency would be a good thing, and to share the information about what chemicals are being used, what drugs are being used. And it would seem to me that would be a better way to do this." He added, "[T]here is an obligation, it seems to me, on the part of the executive branch that’s charged with that responsibility to be forthcoming about the mechanisms, the means by which this most serious of executive branch actions can be carried out." On the progress of the death penalty review ordered by President Obama, Holder said, "We have people from our Civil Rights Division, our Criminal Division, various other components within the department looking at our protocol and taking into account what we have seen happen in the states recently, as we try to work our way through how the federal government is going to impose the death penalty."

Leading Medical Experts Contradict Arizona's Description of Execution

Although Arizona officials have claimed that Joseph Wood was "brain dead" during his two-hour execution on July 23, prominent medical experts from around the country strongly disagreed. David Waisel, associate professor of anaesthesia at Harvard medical school, said a person who is brain dead will stop breathing unless kept alive on a ventilator. “There is no way anyone could ever look at someone and make that kind of diagnosis. He was still breathing, so he was not brain dead. This is an example where they threw out a term that has a precise medical definition, but they didn't know what it means.” Dr. Chitra Venkat, clinical associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, said, “If you are taking breaths, you are not brain dead. Period. That is not compatible with brain death, at all. In fact, it is not compatible with any form of death.” And Dr. Robert D. Stevens (pictured), associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, noted, “Any type of breathing, gasping, whatever it is, immediately indicates that the patient is not brain dead.” Columbia University anesthesiologist Mark Heath called the use of midazolam (part of Arizona's lethal injection regimen) "a failed experiment."

Death Penalty on Hold in Most of the Country

Thirty-six states have either abolished the death penalty, have executions on hold, or have not carried out an execution in at least 5 years. Recently, three states, Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma, temporarily halted executions as reviews are conducted of botched executions. In six states, Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, and North Carolina, a de facto moratorium on executions is in place because of lethal-injection challenges; most of those states have not had an execution since 2008. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have formal moratoriums on executions imposed by their governors. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. In 6 additional states, while no formal hold is in place, no execution has been conducted in at least five years. The U.S. military and federal government also authorize the death penalty, but neither has had an execution in over ten years. Click image at left to see enlarged chart with further details.

Arizona Botches Execution of Joseph Wood

The execution of Joseph Wood III in Arizona on July 23 took nearly two hours, with witnesses reporting that Wood gasped and snorted over 600 times during the procedure. Wood was executed using midazolam and hyrdromorphone, the same drug protocol used in January's botched execution of Dennis McGuire. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had stayed Wood's execution and ordered the state to release information about the source of the lethal injection drugs and the training of those who would carry out the execution, but the stay was lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court on July 22, allowing the state to maintain secrecy. Attorneys for Wood tried to file an emergency request to halt the execution because Wood was still awake an hour into the procedure. Dale Baich, one of Wood's attorneys, said, “I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this. Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.” Arizona Governor Jan Brewer ordered a review of the execution, saying she was “concerned by the length of time” that it took. The director of the Department of Corrections said they will conduct a full review and are waiting on results of a toxicology study and autopsy. 

Media Investigation Finds Serious Flaws in Oklahoma Execution Procedure

The Tulsa World of Oklahoma recently conducted an investigation into the state's execution protocol in the wake of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April. Comparing Oklahoma's protocol to those of 19 other states, the study found that Oklahoma lacks basic safeguards followed in many other states. Among those are regular training for the execution team, the availability of backup drugs in the event of a problem with the initial injection, and specified procedures for determining whether the inmate is unconscious. The World questioned Oklahoma's decision to use a three-drug protocol when a less error-prone, one-drug protocol was available under the state's procedures. A review of autopsy records from Oklahoma's executed inmates found that all inmates were given the same dose of the drugs, regardless of their weight. At least 32 of the 108 inmates for whom records were available had levels of anesthetic in their blood below what experts say would render a patient unconscious. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court said it was "uncontested" that, without sufficient anesthesia, "there is a substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation" from the second and third drugs used in lethal injections. A state law passed in 2000 ended the practice of automatic autopsies of executed prisoners. Autopsies are now performed only if requested by the inmate's family or ordered by state officials. An autopsy of Clayton Lockett was ordered, but the full results have not yet been released.

First Lethal Injections Since Botched Oklahoma Execution Veiled in Secrecy

Georgia and Missouri each carried out an execution on June 17 and 18 respectively, marking the first executions since the botched lethal injection of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. Georgia executed Marcus Wellons (l.) after challenges to the state's lethal injection secrecy law were denied. One of the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that allowed the execution wrote separately of the "disturbing circularity problem" in requiring Wellons to show that the planned method of execution would cause him unacceptable harm, but denying him the information to support such a claim: "How could he when the state has passed a law prohibiting him from learning about the compound it plans to use to execute him?" In Missouri, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit lifted a stay of execution that had been in place for John Winfield (r.) allowing his execution just after midnight on June 18. Winfield's execution had been stayed because correction officials had interfered with the clemency process by pressuring a prison employee who intended to testify in favor of clemency for Winfield. Missouri's lethal injection process was also challenged because of its failure to divulge the source of its drugs.

NEW RESOURCES: The Angolite Reviews the Death Penalty and Experimentation on Prisoners

The most recent issue of The Angolite, a magazine written and published by prisoners at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, which houses the state's death row, contains a number of articles relevant to the death penalty. The first, "Shifting Values," discusses the declining use of the death penalty through an examination of developments in 2013. A second article, "Death House Cat & Mouse," reports on Louisiana's complicated struggle to obtain lethal injection drugs for executions. Another lengthy article, "First, Do No Harm," discusses the history of medical experimentation on prisoners throughout the U.S. While not focused on the death penalty, the article is relevant to the current use of untried drugs and combinations of drugs in lethal injections around the country.

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