TIME justice

Execution Gone Awry Prompts Concern Over Dubious Lethal-Injection Drugs

Arizona Execution Drugs
With the state prison in the background, about a dozen death-penalty opponents pray as they await the execution of Joseph Wood in Florence, Ariz., on July 23, 2014 Associated Press

Many states won't disclose how they obtain the chemicals used in lethal injections, bringing into question the constitutionality of recent executions

There are just over 3,000 prisoners on death row in the U.S., and 32 states where their execution remains a legal course of action. The decision to implement capital punishment in these states is generally accepted as constitutional, so long as its procedure is in line with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel-and-unusual punishment.

The execution of Arizona inmate Joseph R. Wood III on Wednesday took nearly two hours to complete, over much of which Wood “gasped and struggled to breathe,” according to a statement released by his defense team. Of the 26 state-sponsored executions committed in the U.S. so far this year, Wood’s was the third to seemingly go awry due to the use of largely experimental lethal chemicals, prompting outrage from those who cite these incidents as evidence that capital punishment is not constitutionally viable given the apparent suffering of its recipients.

“His two-hour struggle to death goes beyond cruel and unusual. It’s torment. It’s something you’d see in third-world and uncivilized societies,” Arizona state senator Ed Ableser told TIME on Wednesday night. “It’s embarrassing to see that our state once again is in the news for everything that is wrong that happens in our government.”

The execution should have lasted no more than 15 minutes; when it became clear to witnesses that Wood’s death would be prolonged, his attorneys unsuccessfully filed an emergency appeal to end the proceedings, the final of several attempts to save his life. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court had approved the execution after a lower court ruled that Arizona, in refusing to declare how it had obtained the lethal chemicals to be used in the injection, may have violated Wood’s First Amendment rights.

In Woods’ execution, the state used a combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone — the same cocktail used by the state of Ohio in the execution of Dennis McGuire in January, in which the inmate floundered and wheezed on a gurney for nearly half an hour before the state pronounced him dead.

In a statement released after Wood’s death, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said she was “concerned by the length of time” it took for the injection to kill him, and that she has instructed the state’s Department of Corrections to investigate the matter thoroughly.

It’s still not certain whether Woods indeed suffered pain — state officials have insisted that he was comatose throughout the process — but in any case, his prolonged death draws further attention to the efficacy of the lethal chemicals used for capital punishment in the U.S., one of the world’s last developed nations to still punish its worst criminals with death.

States have been struggling to devise new lethal chemicals to be used in capital punishment since 2011, when U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies ceased to manufacture and sell sodium thiopental, an anesthetic compound that has traditionally been essential to America’s execution cocktails. It has been a process of trial and error, of learning from mistakes. The mistakes are those execution attempts that do not transpire according to plan — typically marked by a death that comes more slowly and viscerally than anticipated.

In recent months, the hesitation of certain states to disclose information about the new chemicals has fueled a public skepticism over the exact physiological effects of these drugs on those to whom they’re administered.

“It’s time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure,” Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement released after Wood’s death. “Instead of hiding lethal injection under layers of foolish secrecy, these states need to show us where the drugs are coming from. Until they can give assurances that the drugs will work as intended, they must stop future executions.”

Nearly a third of all executions involving the sedative used to kill Wood “have had extremely troubling problems,” according to a report released last month by the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution,” defense attorney Dale Baich told the press. “The public should hold its officials responsible and demand to make this process more transparent.”

TIME justice

Arizona Inmate Dies After Nearly 2 Hours in Apparently Botched Execution

Joseph Wood is pictured in this booking photo.
Joseph Wood is pictured in this booking photo. Arizona Department of Corrections—Reuters

One of the judges that issued a stay of execution, later overturned, wrote in an opinion that the firing squad would likely be a better option for executions

Updated July 23, 22:30 ET

Arizona death row inmate Joseph Wood gasped and struggled for breath for at least an hour on Wednesday during what is being considered another botched execution using a lethal cocktail of drugs.

“The experiment using midazolam combined with hydromorphone to carry out an execution failed today in Arizona,” one of Wood’s attorneys, Dale Baich, said in a statement. “It took Joseph Wood two hours to die, and he gasped and struggled to breath for about an hour and forty minutes.”

According to the Arizona Attorney General’s office, Joseph R. Wood III, who was sentenced to death for killing his ex-girlfriend and her father in 1991, was pronounced dead at 3:49pm, nearly two hours after his execution commenced at 1:52p.m.

During the execution, Wood’s attorneys filed an emergency appeal in federal court claiming Wood was “gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” according to the Associated Press.

Baich witnessed the execution and says Arizona now joins the number of states that have “been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution.”

“We will renew our efforts to get information about the manufacturer of drugs as well as how Arizona came up with the experimental formula of drugs it used today,” Baich’s statement said.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer issued a statement expressing concern at the time it took to execute Wood. “I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process,” the Governor said. However, she added: “Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer. This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

A request for comment from the Arizona Department of Corrections was not immediately returned.

Wood’s execution came after what Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne described as “after several days of legal maneuvering.” On Tuesday, the Supreme Court lifted Wood’s stay of execution following the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision to postpone his death due to the mystery around the lethal injection drugs that would be used.

One of the judges that issued the original stay, Judge Alex Kozinski, said in an opinion that the firing squad would likely be a better option for executions.

“Eight or ten large-caliber bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time,” Kozinski said. “Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood.”

TIME justice

Arizona Inmate Dies 2 Hours After Execution Began

Joseph Wood is pictured in this booking photo.
Joseph Wood is pictured in this booking photo. Arizona Department of Corrections—Reuters

FLORENCE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona officials say a murderer who was sentenced to death has died nearly two hours after his execution started.

Joseph Rudolph Wood’s lawyers had filed an emergency appeal in federal court during the execution demanding that it be stopped. The appeal said Wood was “gasping and snorting for more than an hour.”

Attorney General Tom Horne’s office says Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., one hour and 57 minutes after the execution started.

A message seeking comment was left with the Arizona Department of Corrections.

An Associated Press reporter witnessed the execution but could not immediately communicate with anyone outside the state prison in Florence where the execution took place.

The execution came after the U.S. Supreme Court denied several appeals seeking details about the state’s execution methods.

There have been several controversial executions recently, including that of an Ohio inmate in January who snorted and gasped during the 26 minutes it took him to die.

TIME Crime

Arizona Execution Will Move Forward After Last-Minute Appeals

Lethal Injection Execution
Walls Unit in Huntsville prison where lethal injections are carried out on inmates in Huntsville, Texas. Jerry Cabluck—Sygma/Corbis

The court, reluctant to step into the battle over lethal injection, denies a constitutional challenge by Arizona death row inmate Joseph Wood over the secrecy of execution drugs

Updated at 3 p.m. E.T. Wednesday

A rare victory for a death row inmate over the weekend was quashed Tuesday when the Supreme Court lifted a stay of execution for Joseph Wood, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his girlfriend and her father in 1989.

In a three-sentence order, the Supreme Court reversed a judgment by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that halted Wood’s execution based on the secrecy surrounding where the state obtains the drugs to carry out lethal injection. About a half-hour after Wood was scheduled to be executed, Arizona’s top court announced that it had temporarily halted the execution on appeals. Wood’s lawyers said he did not have proper legal representation. They also claimed that Arizona’s “experimental” lethal injection methods, which include drugs like midazolam that have been used in executions that have gone awry in other states, would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But that stay was lifted Wednesday afternoon after the court heard last-minute appeals from Wood’s lawyers, clearing the way for Wood to be executed by lethal injection.

Death row inmates around the U.S. have challenged the constitutionality of their lethal injections, often arguing that the laws and policies shielding drug manufacturers’ identities are unconstitutional. Due to drug shortages and boycotts by pharmaceutical companies, many states in the last few years have obtained lethal injection drugs from compounding pharmacies, which are unregulated by the federal government.

Courts around the country have been largely unreceptive to those arguments. Wood’s case, however, was an exception.

Wood’s lawyers asked the state to halt his execution if it did not provide the origins of the drugs as well as the qualifications of the executioners, relying not on an Eighth Amendment argument regarding the risk of cruel and unusual punishment, but rather a First Amendment defense that Wood had a right to access information about his execution. A U.S. District Court judge in Phoenix initially denied the request, but the Ninth Circuit sided with Wood.

The court denied appeals by the state to lift the stay, sending the case to the Supreme Court, which has been reluctant to step into the ongoing battle over lethal injection.

But while the fate of lethal injection in the U.S. remains uncertain, reverting to an older method of executions got an unexpected endorsement. In a separate opinion by the Ninth Circuit that upheld Wood’s stay of execution before the Supreme Court intervened, Judge Alex Kozinski called lethal injection flawed and proposed bringing back the firing squad.

“If some states and the federal government wish to continue carrying out the death penalty, they must turn away from this misguided path and return to more primitive—and foolproof—methods of execution,” Judge Kozinski wrote. “The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. Eight or ten large-caliber bullets fired at close range can inflict massive damage, causing instant death every time. … Sure, firing squads can be messy, but if we are willing to carry out executions, we should not shield ourselves from the reality that we are shedding human blood.”

Legislators in several states have proposed bringing back firing squads. Only Oklahoma and Utah currently allow them, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but only under very limited circumstances.

Wood’s execution was set for Wednesday morning.

TIME justice

Oklahoma Death Row Inmates Sue to Stop Executions

Clayton Lockett, who was scheduled to be executed on March 20, 2014 in the 1999 shooting death of Stephanie Nieman.
Clayton Lockett, who was scheduled to be executed on March 20, 2014 in the 1999 shooting death of Stephanie Nieman. Oklahoma Department of Corrections/AP

After the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in April

A group of death row inmates in Oklahoma sued state officials in federal court Wednesday over what they called “unsound procedures” in the state’s execution process.

Citing the botched execution of Clayton Locket and other incidents, more than 20 plaintiffs filed suit claiming Oklahoma’s current method of execution violates the constitutional rights of the condemned. The lawsuit names several corrections officials as defendants, as well as unnamed people such as “Doctor X” and “Paramedic Y” to identify officials that take part in executions.

The plaintiffs assert that the state uses unsound procedures to administer executions and unsound drugs, adding up to a violation of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. under the 8th Amendment.

“We look forward to the full airing of the important issues raised in this case through the discovery process,” Dale Baich, an attorney for one of the death row prisoners, said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections declined to comment on the matter, telling TIME: “We don’t comment on pending lawsuits.”

States around the country, including Oklahoma, have faced scrutiny in recent years as a shortage of the drugs used in lethal injections has forced officials to look to alternative sources to secure the cocktail of chemicals meant to painlessly kill a convict.

In the 25 minutes it took him to die, Lockett was observed mumbling and rolling his head side to side, apparently in agony. His seemingly agonizing death in April sparked a national outcry about capital punishment.

In January, another man, Michael Wilson, said “I feel my whole body burning,” during the procedure. Anti-death penalty activists have pointed to these examples as evidence that the punishment cannot be carried out humanely. For a time in the wake of Lockett’s death, a de facto moratorium on executions across the country was in place, as officials scrambled to ensure the botched procedure was not repeated. Georgia, Florida and Missouri were the first states to end the unofficial moratorium earlier this month.

TIME Death Penalty

Georgia Convict First to Be Executed After Botched Oklahoma Lethal Injection

Death row inmate Marcus Wellons is seen in an undated picture from the Georgia Department of Corrections
Death row inmate Marcus Wellons is seen in an undated handout from the Georgia Department of Corrections. Reuters

Convicts in Florida, Georgia and Missouri were set to die within a 24 hour period for the first time since the botched lethal injection in Oklahoma last month

Updated on 06/18/2014 at 12.01 a.m.

(JACKSON, Ga.) — A Georgia inmate became the 1st executed convict in the U.S. since an execution-gone-awry in Oklahoma led to a defacto national moratorium on the practice seven weeks ago. The state used one drug in the execution.

A group of convicts were set to be put to death in three state over the next 24 hours.

With Georgia’s inmate executed, the other convicted killers set to die by lethal injection are from Florida and Missouri.

The states had all refuse to reveal the source of their the drug cocktail to be used in the executions or if those drugs have ben tested. Lawyers for two of the men have challenged the secrecy surrounding the drugs.

States with the death penalty have long grappled with how to continue executing prisoners in a humane way. After the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in late May, human rights activists have upped the urgency of their call to force states to release information about the drugs used to kill prisoners.

In Georgia Tuesday night, Marcus Wellons was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. ET for raping and murdering his 15-year-old neighbor in 1989. However, two hours later, the Associated Press reported that “officials were waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on an appeal.”

Just after midnight CT, John Winfield, who shot three women in the head in 1996 killing two and blinding the third, is scheduled to be executed in Missouri.

Finally, John Ruthell Henry is set to die at 6:00 p.m. ET in Florida on Wednesday. Henry was convicted of stabbing his estranged wife to death just before Christmas, 1985, then murdering her five-year-old son from a previous marriage days later. Testing has shown that Henry has an IQ of 78, the AP reported. The state says that anyone with an IQ over 70 does not qualify as mentally disabled.

[AP]

 

 

TIME Crime

Report: Executioner Errors Led to Botched Lethal Injection

A mugshot of Clayton Lockett on June 29, 2011.
A mugshot of Clayton Lockett on June 29, 2011. Oklahoma Department of Corrections/EPA

Preliminary autopsy findings show that officials damaged Lockett's veins during execution

Oklahoma prison officials failed to properly place IVs in Clayton Lockett’s veins after numerous attempts, according to preliminary autopsy findings released Friday. The death row inmate’s execution made national headlines and became a rallying cry for death penalty opponents.

While many of lethal injection’s problems have focused on the drugs being used, it appears that Lockett’s execution went awry due to the actual administration of those drugs. The autopsy found that Lockett’s arms and thighs showed evidence of skin and needle punctures. IVs are typically administered through the arms, but according to the autopsy, Oklahoma’s executioners appear to have failed in accessing his veins and as an alternative attempted to deliver the fatal drugs through his femoral arteries, located in the thighs.

The autopsy found that Lockett’s veins were not damaged prior to the execution and stated that there was “excellent integrity of peripheral and deep veins for the purpose of achieving venous access.” There was also evidence of “vascular injury indicative of failed vascular catheter access,” meaning the executioners actually damaged Lockett’s veins during the attempted execution. The drugs likely leaked into his surrounding tissues rather than going directly into his bloodstream, causing a much more prolonged death.

Lockett’s execution lasted 45 minutes.

The postmortem was conducted after Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin called for an investigation into the April 29 execution. President Obama asked the U.S. attorney general to look into the problems surrounding lethal injection following Lockett’s death as well.

A series of lawsuits around the country have challenged lethal injection methods based on the drugs’ origins, which are often kept secret. Many states have had trouble obtaining execution drugs lately and have turned to new mixtures which are loosely regulated and not overseen by the federal government. But the Lockett execution may put more of a spotlight on the actual training of executioners, which is also a concern for many who challenge lethal injection’s constitutionality. The amount and quality of training which executioners receive is often unclear.

The preliminary autopsy findings did not confirm whether Lockett died of a heart attack, which state officials claimed at the time. A full report is due within the next few weeks.

TIME The Brief

Shocking: Tennessee Resurrecting the Electric Chair

Welcome to #theBrief, the four stories to know about right now—from the editors of TIME

+ READ ARTICLE

Here are the stories TIME is watching this Friday, May 23:

  • Tennessee could bring back the electric chair to perform the death penalty if drugs cannot be obtained.
  • Thailand’s military tightens its grip after a coup by applying nationwide curfews and censoring the media.
  • NOAA says to look forward to blue skies this summer in a report that predicts a slow hurricane season.
  • Cops across the nation get their ticket books ready for the mad traffic of Memorial Day weekend.

The Brief is published daily on weekdays.

TIME The Brief

GOP Rolls Tea Party in Primaries

Welcome to #theBrief, the four stories to know about right now—from the editors of TIME

+ READ ARTICLE

Here are the stories TIME is watching this Wednesday, May 21:

  • Establishment Republicans came out on top of GOP primaries after three of five states pass over Tea Party candidates to re-elect incumbents.
  • The Supreme Court stayed what would have been the nation’s first lethal injection after Oklahoma’s botched execution in late April.
  • Iranian officials arrest 6 young people for posting a dancing tribute video of Pharrell’s song “Happy” to YouTube called “Happy in Tehran.
  • Thanks to late storms and lingering cold, Aspen opens its ski slopes for Memorial Day weekend.

The Brief is published daily on weekdays.

TIME Crime

Missouri Lethal Injection Halted With an Hour to Go

Death row inmate Russell Bucklew is shown in Missouri Department of Corrections photo
Death row inmate Russell Bucklew is shown in this Missouri Department of Corrections photo taken on Feb. 9, 2014. Missouri is set on early May 21, 2014 to execute Bucklew, a convicted killer whose lawyers have said has a rare health condition that could lead to extreme pain and suffocation during a lethal injection. Missouri Department of Corrections/Reuters

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ordered the suspension of Russell Bucklew's execution Tuesday at the literal 11th hour

Updated May 21, 7:16am ET

A Supreme Court Justice stepped in to halt the execution of a death row inmate in Missouri with an hour to go before this scheduled lethal injection Tuesday night, after an 11th hour legal back-and-forth over his fate.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito ordered the suspension of Russell Bucklew’s execution late Tuesday, shortly after a full federal appeals court lifted a stay on his lethal injection imposed earlier by a three-person panel of that same court.

Russell Bucklew, who murdered a man in front of his children, shot a cop and raped and kidnapped his ex-girlfriend, has said a birth defect could cause him tremendous pain during an execution, that would violate the Eighth Amendment‘s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. But Justice Alito, who handles emergency matters for Missouri and other states covered by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, did not give a reason for his stay. The full Supreme Court will examine Bucklew’s case on Wednesday.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had earlier struck down a 2-1 ruling to stay Bucklew’s execution as the state had not proven that the condemned man’s claim was incorrect. Bucklew had argued that his cavernous hemangioma — which causes masses of blood vessels to grow in his skull — might keep the injection drug from properly circulating.

“Bucklew’s unrebutted medical evidence demonstrates the requisite sufficient likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond the constitutionally permissible amount inherent in all executions,” the court wrote.

“We also conclude that the irreparable harm to Bucklew is great in comparison to the harm to the state from staying the execution.”

On Monday, a lower court denied Bucklew’s request to stay the execution, which would have been the first since a botched lethal injection in late April led Oklahoma to halt its executions. The incident also prompted President Obama to call for a Department of Justice inquiry.

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