FLORENCE, Ariz. — A condemned Arizona inmate gasped and snorted for more than an hour and a half during his execution Wednesday before he died in an episode sure to add to the scrutiny surrounding the death penalty in the United States.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne's office said Joseph Rudolph Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., one hour and 57 minutes after the execution started.
Wood's lawyers had filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court while the execution was underway, demanding that it be stopped. The appeal said Wood was "gasping and snorting for more than an hour."
Word that Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the appeal came about a half hour after Wood's death.
An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution saw Wood start gasping shortly after a sedative and a pain killer were injected into his veins. He gasped more than 600 times over the next hour and 40 minutes.
An administrator checked on Wood a half dozen times. His breathing slowed as a deacon said a prayer while holding a rosary. The 55-year-old finally stopped breathing and was pronounced dead 12 minutes later.
Defense lawyer Dale Baich called it a botched execution that should have taken 10 minutes.
"Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution," Baich said. "The public should hold its officials responsible and demand to make this process more transparent."
Family members of Wood's victims said they had no problems with the way the execution was carried out.
"This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, let's worry about the drugs," said Richard Brown, the brother-in-law of Debbie Dietz, who was 29 when she was killed in 1989. "Why didn't they give him a bullet, why didn't we give him Drano?"
Wood looked at the family members as he delivered his final words, saying he was thankful for Jesus Christ as his savior. At one point, he smiled at them, which angered the family.
"I take comfort knowing today my pain stops, and I said a prayer that on this or any other day you may find peace in all of your hearts and may God forgive you all," Wood said.
The case has highlighted scrutiny surrounding lethal injections after two controversial ones. An Ohio inmate executed in January snorted and gasped during the 26 minutes it took him to die. In Oklahoma, an inmate died of a heart attack in April, minutes after prison officials halted his execution because the drugs weren't being administered properly.
Arizona uses the same drugs — the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone — that were used in the Ohio execution. A different drug combination was used in the Oklahoma case.
"States have been scrambling over the past many months to find new sources of drugs. They have been experimenting," said Megan McCracken, of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law's Death Penalty Clinic. "These procedures are unreliable and the consequences are horrific."
States have refused to reveal details such as which pharmacies are supplying lethal injection drugs and who is administering them, because of concerns over harassment.
Woods filed several appeals that were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court, including one that said his First Amendment rights were violated when the state refused to reveal such details.
Wood argued he and the public have a right to know details about the state's method for lethal injections, the qualifications of the executioner and who makes the drugs. Such demands for greater transparency have become a new legal tactic in death penalty cases.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had put the execution on hold, saying the state must reveal the information. But the Supreme Court has not been receptive to the tactic, ruling against death penalty lawyers on the argument each time it has been before justices.
Deborah Denno, professor of criminal law and criminal procedure at Fordham Law School, said it may be up to Legislatures or the public to bring any change.
"I think every time one of these botches happens, it leads to questioning the death penalty even more," she said. "It will reach a point where the public will question the value of these execution procedures generally, and perhaps the death penalty itself."
Wood's execution was Arizona's third since October and the state's 36th since 1992.
He was convicted of fatally shooting Dietz and her father, 55-year-old Gene Dietz, at their auto repair shop in Tucson.
Wood and Debbie Dietz had a tumultuous relationship during which he repeatedly assaulted her. She tried to end their relationship and got an order of protection against Wood.
On the day of the shooting, Wood went to the auto shop and waited for Gene Dietz, who disapproved of his daughter's relationship with Wood, to get off the phone. Once the father hung up, Wood pulled out a revolver, shot him in the chest and then smiled.
Wood then turned his attention toward Debbie Dietz, who was trying to telephone for help. Wood grabbed her by the neck and put his gun to her chest. She pleaded with him to spare her life. An employee heard Wood say, "I told you I was going to do it. I have to kill you." He then called her an expletive and fired two shots in her chest.
A HISTORY OF PROBLEMATIC EXECUTIONS
Since Texas became the first state to use lethal injection as its execution method on Dec. 7, 1982, some problems have been reported during the process nationwide. Those include delays in finding suitable veins, needles becoming clogged or disengaged, and reactions from inmates who appeared to be under stress. Some examples, including one from Florida:
- July 23, 2014. Joseph Rudolph Wood gasped and snorted for more than an hour and a half after his execution began in Arizona, prompting his lawyers to file an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court demanding that it be stopped. Wood gasped more than 600 times before he was pronounced dead, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution started. Defense lawyer Dale Baich called it a botched execution that should have taken 10 minutes.
— April 29, 2014. Clayton Lockett's execution in Oklahoma was halted by the state's prison director after Lockett gritted his teeth, tried to lift his head and convulsed. Oklahoma was using a new sedative as part of its three-drug lethal injection procedure. Blinds were lowered to block the view of witnesses. When halted, Lockett already had been declared unconscious by a physician. The state corrections agency said Lockett died later of a heart attack. An autopsy was being conducted.
- Jan. 16, 2014. Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped during the record 26 minutes it took him to die in Ohio's execution chamber. The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said its review determined McGuire was asleep and unconscious a few minutes after the drugs were administered and "he did not experience pain, distress or air hunger after the drugs were administered or when the bodily movements and sounds occurred."
— Sept. 15, 2009. In Ohio, inmate Romell Broom avoided execution after prison technicians were unable to find a suitable vein after trying for two hours. Broom even had helped to find a good vein. Then-Gov. Ted Strickland ordered the halt. Broom, who remains on Ohio's death row, has complained that he was stuck with needles at least 18 times and suffered intense pain. He has sued, arguing that a second attempt to put him to death would be unconstitutionally cruel.
— December 13, 2006. When Florida inmate Angel Diaz continued to move, was squinting and grimacing after receiving the injection, a second dose of chemicals was administered. Florida prison officials initially blamed the issue on Diaz's liver problems. An autopsy later found his liver undamaged but that the needle had gone through Diaz's vein and out the other side, meaning the chemicals went into soft tissue and not the vein. As a result, then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions in Florida and named a panel to examine the process.
— May 2, 2006. In Ohio, Joseph L. Clark's lethal injection was stalled for 22 minutes before prison technicians located a suitable vein. Shortly after the execution began, the vein collapsed and Clark's arm began to swell. He raised his head and said: "It don't work. It don't work." Curtains were closed while the technicians worked for 30 minutes to find another vein. Clark wasn't pronounced dead until nearly 90 minutes after the process started.
— April 23, 1998. Texas inmate Joseph Cannon made his final statement and the injection process began. When there was no immediate reaction, he had a quizzical look on his face, then blurted out: "It's come undone." A vein in Cannon's arm had collapsed and the needle popped out. A curtain was pulled to block the view of the witnesses. Fifteen minutes later, it was reopened and the execution was completed.
— July 18, 1996. Indiana inmate Tommie J. Smith's lethal injection took 69 minutes when prison technicians were unable to locate suitable veins. A physician was summoned to give Smith a local anesthetic. The doctor also tried unsuccessfully to insert the lethal needle in Smith's neck. A vein in his foot finally was successful 49 minutes after the process began. He was pronounced dead 20 minutes later.
— May 3, 1995. Emmitt Foster's punishment in Missouri was halted seven minutes after it began when chemicals stopped. Foster gasped and convulsed and the blinds in the death chamber were drawn. He was pronounced dead 30 minutes later and the blinds were reopened so witnesses could see his body. A coroner who pronounced him blamed the problem on leather straps that bound Foster too tightly to the execution gurney and restricted the flow of the chemicals. The straps had been loosened to complete the punishment.
— May 10, 1994. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy's execution in Illinois was interrupted as the lethal chemicals unexpectedly solidified, clogging the intravenous tube that led into his arm. Prison officials drew blinds to cover the witness window and the clogged tube was replaced. Ten minutes later, the blinds were opened and the punishment resumed. The problem was blamed on the inexperience of prison officials.
— May 7, 1992. Texas prisoner Justin Lee May had an unusually violent reaction to the lethal drugs, gasping and coughing and rearing against the leather belts that restrained him to the death chamber gurney. Amid groans, he lifted his head. His eyes and mouth remained open as he died.
— December 13, 1988. Texas inmate Raymond Landry was pronounced dead 40 minutes after being strapped to the execution gurney and 24 minutes after the drugs started flowing into his arms. Two minutes after the drugs were administered, the needle came out of Landry's vein, spraying the chemicals toward witnesses. The curtain separating witnesses from Landry was pulled, then reopened 14 minutes later after the execution team reinserted the needle. Texas prison officials described it as "blowout." Subsequently, a plastic window was erected in the Texas death chamber to separate the inmate from witnesses.
Source: AP archives and Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group that opposes the death penalty.