Arizona inmate takes nearly two hours to die by lethal injection in botched execution

Done right, execution by the needle is supposed to take 10-15 minutes. Obviously, this wasn’t done right. Clayton Lockett, the inmate who died during a botched lethal injection three months ago in Oklahoma, ended up having a heart attack on the gurney after 20 minutes. Joseph Wood, the inmate executed yesterday, didn’t have a heart attack; depending upon which of the witnesses you ask, he either “gasped” for two hours or he “snored.” A reporter who watched it happen describes it this way:

He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed. And when the doctor came in to check on his consciousness and turned on the microphone to announce that Wood was still sedated, we could hear the sound he was making: a snoring, sucking, similar to when a swimming-pool filter starts taking in air, a louder noise than I can imitate, though I have tried.

It was death by apnea. And it went on for an hour and a half. I made a pencil stroke on a pad of paper, each time his mouth opened, and ticked off more than 640, which was not all of them, because the doctor came in at least four times and blocked my view.

Another reporter described it the same way, comparing Wood to “a fish on shore gulping for air.” It went on long enough that his lawyers were able to patch together an emergency appeal asking for the execution to be halted and filed it with the Supreme Court.

According to the Arizona Department of Corrections, though, the guy was snoring. Their IV team checked him repeatedly and believe he was comatose. The victim’s family didn’t see any suffering either:

“It sounded to me like he was snoring,” said Jeanne Brown, whose father and sister were Wood’s victims.

“You don’t know what excruciating is,” she said. “What’s excruciating is seeing your dad laying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister laying there in a pool of blood.”

Before they administered the needle, Wood reportedly looked at the family, grinned, and “seemed to laugh,” a reaction that they naturally didn’t appreciate. There appears to be no doubt about his guilt, either. He was convicted in 1991 for shooting and killing his girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father. He had repeatedly assaulted Dietz during their relationship, of which her father naturally disapproved; one day Wood showed up at the auto shop where they worked, shot her father in the chest, then grabbed her by the neck and allegedly said, “I told you I was going to do it. I love you. I have to kill you, bitch.” Then he put two bullets in her chest. The cops had actually followed Wood to the shop because of a traffic violation. When they got there, he turned and started shooting at them too; they ended up putting nine bullets in him, none of them fatal. At the trial, his defense lawyers argued that drugs and alcohol had caused him to behave erratically. I guess we all make mistakes, huh?

If you’re wondering why lethal injections seem so difficult for states lately, there’s an easy answer: The most effective drugs, like sodium thiopental or pentobarital, are much harder to obtain now. Some companies refuse to allow sedatives designed for medical treatment to be used for executions. The EU has restricted exports of Propofol for the same reason. In other words, supposedly in the name of deterring capital punishment, drug companies are leaving states to experiment with riskier and less effective drug cocktails, the result of which is capital punishment plus some unintended suffering on the side. In fact, per the AP, Arizona uses the same cocktail (midazolam and hydromorphone) that was used by Ohio in another botched execution back in January, in which the inmate also snorted and gasped until he died 26 minutes later. The strategy here by opponents, in other words, is to shape public opinion by making states choose between either canceling death sentences or facing political fallout from more botched executions caused by unproven drugs.