FLORENCE, Ariz. -The execution of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood III took nearly two hours this afternoon, confirming concerns that had been raised by his attorneys about a controversial drug used by the state of Arizona.
Wood remained alive at Arizona's state prison in Florence long enough for his public defenders to file an emergency motion for a stay of execution with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, after the process began at 1:53 p.m.. The motion noted that Wood "has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour."
According to Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer, who witnessed the execution, lines were run into each of Wood's arms. After Wood said his last words, he was unconscious by 1:57 p.m.. At about 2:05, he started gasping, Kiefer said.
"I counted about 660 times he gasped," Kiefer said. "That petered out by 3:33. The death was called at 3:49."
"I just know it was not efficient. It took a long time."
Another reporter who witnessed the execution, Troy Hayden, said it was "very disturbing to watch... like a fish on shore gulping for air."
Typically, executions by lethal injection take about 10 minutes. Dale Baich, of the Federal Public Defender's Office in Phoenix, said "the experiment failed."
The Arizona Supreme Court had lifted a temporary stay of double-murderer Wood's execution shortly before noon Wednesday, clearing the way for his execution later in the day. Wood had been scheduled to die at 10 a.m. Wednesday, but the court halted the process for long enough to consider a last-minute petition for post-conviction relief. Witnesses were told when the stay was issued to return by 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Wood, 55, killed two people in 1989.
The latest petition initially was filed in Pima County Superior Court after a federal appellate court's stay was lifted Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court. It argued that Wood had ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial, and also challenged Arizona's lethal-injection protocol and the drug cocktail used in executions.
Pima County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Lee dismissed Wood's first argument, but sent the question of Arizona's lethal-injection protocol to the state high court.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld Arizona's veil of secrecy around its lethal-injection drugs, permitting plans for the execution to proceed.
The high-court ruling knocked down a federal appeals court decision that the execution could not move forward unless the state turned over information about how the execution would be carried out.
Executions are public events. But in recent years, many states that still have capital punishment, including Arizona, have passed or expanded laws that shroud the procedures in secrecy.
The Arizona Department of Corrections plans to use a controversial drug, and it favors a controversial method of administering it, so Wood's attorneys demanded to know the qualifications of the executioners and the origin of the drugs to be used in the execution, claiming that Wood had a First Amendment right to the information.
On Saturday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which lifted the stay without addressing the First Amendment issue.
State officials said in court filings that they need to maintain secrecy because publicity has made it more difficult to obtain the drugs needed to carry out executions.
Drug manufacturers have begun refusing to sell to departments of corrections, forcing the departments to experiment with new and less reliable drugs or to specially order them from compounding pharmacies, which in turn are harassed by anti-death-penalty activists.
"Prisoners who are sentenced to death for their crimes have every right to know what drugs are going to be used," said Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, "but it would be a bad matter of policy if the manufacturer of these drugs were identified. The very reason we have a new drug protocol is because of the pressure and threats applied to the companies ... forcing them to stop making it."
It was not the first time the Supreme Court has ruled against a stay of execution based on drug secrecy. In 2010, it ruled against an Arizona prisoner asserting his right to know about lethal-injection drugs that turned out to have been improperly obtained from overseas.
The U.S. District and Circuit Courts in Washington, D.C., later determined federal law had been violated, which the Arizona Attorney General's Office denies.
"In most respects, what Mr. Wood is asking for is quite small," said Megan McCracken, a former federal defender who works with the University of California-Berkeley Death Penalty Clinic. "I think they don't want to set precedent about giving out information, and they don't want to come under scrutiny."
Murder in Tucson
Wood was born in Texas in 1958 and grew up mostly in Missouri and Tucson.
He spent six years in the U.S. Air Force, but mustered out with serious alcohol and emotional problems that may have been exacerbated by a series of head injuries from car and motorcycle accidents.
In 1989, he was living with Debra Dietz, who supported him and paid for the apartment they shared.
But Wood was abusive, and when Dietz moved out, he began stalking her.
On Aug. 7, 1989, Wood became enraged when Dietz wouldn't take his calls.
He went to the auto body shop where Dietz worked for her father, Eugene.
Eugene Dietz was on the phone when Wood entered. Wood waited for him to hang up and then shot him in the chest without a word.
Wood then hunted down Debra Dietz and shot her twice.
He was sentenced to death twice and lived quietly on death row in Florence until his appeals ran out.
Shroud of secrecy
According to McCracken, at least 11 states shield information about executions.
Arizona's law protects the identity of executioners, which the state interprets to extend to the drug suppliers as well.
From the time execution by lethal injection was instituted in 1977 until 2010, executions were carried out with a sequence of drugs beginning with the anesthetic thiopental.
But then supplies of thiopental ran out because it was being replaced by newer drugs in clinical settings. In 2010, with the impending execution of Jeffrey Landrigan, The Arizona Republic reported that the state had obtained its thiopental from England, sidestepping rules of the U.S. Food and Drug and Drug Enforcement administrations.
Laws of the European Union prohibit assisting in capital punishment anywhere in the world, so the United Kingdom and Italy shut down exports of drugs that could be used for lethal injection, forcing states to switch to the barbiturate pentobarbital.
But that drug became unavailable when manufacturers decided they did not want lifesaving drugs they had developed to be used to end lives.
Florida, Ohio and Oklahoma switched to protocols using combinations of midazolam, a drug similar to Valium. Arizona opted for a combination of midazolam and the opiate hydromorphone. But midazolam has proven to be less reliable than thiopental or pentobarbital for lethal injection.
Last October, a Florida man was executed with a three-drug protocol starting with midazolam. The Associated Press reported that the prisoner "remained conscious longer and made more body movements after losing consciousness than other people executed recently by lethal injection under the old formula."
In January, an Ohio prisoner who received a cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone gasped for air and took more than 20 minutes to die, compared with the usual 10 minutes or so when prisoners are executed with thiopental or pentobarbital.
And during an April execution in Oklahoma, the condemned man at first appeared to be unconscious, but then began "writhing and bucking," one eyewitness wrote.
He kicked his legs and tried to sit up while muttering words the witnesses couldn't understand.
The execution was stopped, but the man subsequently died of an apparent heart attack.
Human error, not midazolam was blamed — the doctor who inserted the catheter into the prisoner's groin area went completely through the femoral artery into the surrounding tissues.
In most states, the drugs used in lethal injection are administered through a simple IV tube in a hand or arm. Arizona executions are supposed to be performed in that manner, unless the medical team has trouble accessing a suitable vein.
Nine of the last 13 Arizona executions have been performed with a catheter surgically cut into the femoral artery.
The Federal Public Defender's Office in Phoenix, the agency that generally handles the last appeals of death-row prisoners, has sued the state repeatedly over the use of central-line catheters.
In their motions for a stay of execution, Wood's attorneys cited a long history of transparency about executions, from the display of ropes used in hangings to information about the gas chamber that still sits across the viewing room from the lethal-injection chamber in the death house at the Florence prison.
In recent years, the federal defender's office has been battling the state over secrecy.
"The people of Arizona have decided that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment," said Dale Baich, a federal public defender. "They should equally decide that the death penalty cannot remain shrouded in secrecy that prevents ... the public, the courts and the condemned from knowing if executions are carried out in compliance with all state and federal laws," Baich said.
The argument will continue in U.S. District Court in an ongoing lawsuit.
But Wood will no longer be part of the argument.