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Two-hour U.S. execution sparks rethink calls

John Zemblidge, right, of Phoenix, leads a group of about a dozen death penalty opponents in prayer as the protest the possible execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood at the state prison in Florence, Ariz. on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (AP Photo)

PHOENIX: Lawyers for a double-murderer whose lethal injection in Arizona dragged on for two hours called for an outside review of the “horrifically botched execution” and prompted new calls Thursday for the United States to abandon the death penalty.

The ordeal in putting Joseph Wood to death Wednesday at a prison facility southeast of Phoenix followed lethal injections that went awry this year in Ohio and Oklahoma, renewing the U.S. debate over capital punishment.

Corrections officials said Wood was never in pain but Rob Freer, a U.S. researcher with human-rights group Amnesty International, asked, “How many more times do officials need to be reminded of the myth of the ‘humane execution’ before they give up on their experiment with judicial killing?”

States that impose the death penalty have been scrambling to find new suppliers of chemical combinations to use in lethal injections after their former suppliers, primarily European drug makers, objected to having their products used to put people to death.

Witnesses described Wood, 55, as having struggled for breath during his execution, while state officials said he had simply been snoring.

“He gasped and struggled to breathe for about an hour and 40 minutes,” said Dale Baich, one of Wood’s lawyers, who watched the execution and tried to stop it. He called for an independent inquiry.

An Arizona Republic journalist who witnessed the execution said he counted Wood gasping for air about 660 times before falling silent.

As authorities struggled to put Wood to death, his attorneys took the extraordinary step of filing emergency court petitions seeking to cut short the procedure, arguing Wood was being subjected to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

But U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the appeal and Wood was pronounced dead one hour and 57 minutes after the execution had officially begun.

State Corrections Director Charles Ryan disputed suggestions that Wood had suffered, saying that once sedated – five minutes into the procedure – the inmate “did not grimace or make any further movement.”

Ryan characterized Wood’s breathing as “sonorous respiration, or snoring,” and said execution team members with whom he conferred during the process assured him “unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress.”

He added that the time it takes to complete an execution varies for each individual.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer expressed concern over how long the procedure lasted and ordered a review by prison officials.

But Baich insisted the inquiry should be independent, saying that in opposing his client’s earlier appeals, the state had “fought tooth and nail to protect the extreme secrecy surrounding its lethal injection drugs and execution personnel.”

“An independent investigation, led by someone outside of the Department of Corrections and outside of the executive branch of state government, must fully explore the practices which led to tonight’s horrifically botched execution,” he said.

Brewer said in a statement that justice was done and that Wood had “died in a lawful manner ... in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims.”

Wood was found guilty in 1991 of fatally shooting his former girlfriend, Debbie Dietz, 29, and her father, Gene Dietz, 55, two years earlier at a family automobile body shop in Tucson.

In January, Dennis McGuire was put to death in Ohio using a sedative-painkiller mix of midazolam and hydromorphone, the first such combination used for a U.S. lethal injection. The execution took about 25 minutes, with McGuire reportedly convulsing and gasping for breath.

Arizona had said it would use the same combination of drugs on Wood but at higher doses.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 25, 2014, on page 11.

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Summary

Lawyers for a double-murderer whose lethal injection in Arizona dragged on for two hours called for an outside review of the "horrifically botched execution" and prompted new calls Thursday for the United States to abandon the death penalty.

Witnesses described Wood, 55, as having struggled for breath during his execution, while state officials said he had simply been snoring.

An Arizona Republic journalist who witnessed the execution said he counted Wood gasping for air about 660 times before falling silent.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the appeal and Wood was pronounced dead one hour and 57 minutes after the execution had officially begun.


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