Eye on the Courts: Reality of Wood’s Execution Confirms Kozinski’s Critique of Lethal Injection

death-penaltyTwo days after Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, in dissent, unloaded one of the most powerful, poignant, and pointed critiques of lethal injection, a long, drawn-out and nearly botched execution of convicted killer Joseph Wood underscored his point.

Witnesses described Mr. Wood gasping and snorting for two hours before he eventually died.

The Washington Post reports, “This drawn-out death of Joseph R. Wood III in Arizona prompted the governor to order a review and drew renewed criticism of lethal injection, the main method of execution in the United States, just months after a high-profile botched execution in Oklahoma.”

“I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dale Baich, one of Wood’s attorneys, told the Washington Post in a phone call. “Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.”

He would tell NBC News, “The state of Arizona today conducted a failed experiment. … It was horrible to watch.”

NBC reported, “Media witnesses said the execution — which followed a botched lethal-injection in Oklahoma, and a protracted one in Ohio using the same drugs — began as expected with doctors inserting the IVs into Wood’s veins.”

His final words were, “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.”

The report then stated, “As the dose was administered, Wood closed his eyes and appeared sedated. But after a few minutes, witnesses said, they could see something was wrong.”

“It was almost like snoring,” Associated Press reporter Astrid Galvan said. “It looked like he was yawning almost.”

They describe, “Wood would go on to gasp more than 600 times over the course of an hour and 40 minutes, witnesses said. One witness likened it to the movements a fish makes when it’s taken out of water.”

“At a certain point you wondered if he ever was going to die,” reporter Troy Hayden said.

NBC reports that the Department of Corrections said the medical team checked on Wood eight times and declared that he was “deeply sedated” or “comatose” and “never in pain or distress.”

At some point his attorney filed papers asking a federal court to stop the execution and order prison officials to try to resuscitate Mr. Wood. However, before the court could act, Mr. Wood was pronounced dead.

“The execution commenced at 1:52 p.m. at the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC) — Florence. He was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m,” a statement from Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said.

Mr. Baich told NBC that “the execution clearly violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel or unusual punishment and was an ordeal that ‘could have been prevented.’”

“The state of Arizona was on notice,” he said. “They knew that Ohio had used these two drugs back in January and they had problems with that execution. Why they used the same two drugs for Mr. Wood’s execution I don’t know.”

NBC reports, “Baich said he had asked a judge to order that Wood’s tissue and blood samples, along with labels from the drugs that were used, be preserved for further investigation.”

Mr. Wood was convicted and sentenced to die on July 23 for the 1989 murders of his estranged girlfriend and her father.

But the big news was Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, who unloaded on lethal injection earlier this week.

He wrote, “Whatever happens to Wood, the attacks will not stop and for a simple reason: The enterprise is flawed. Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful—like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. . . .”

He would later turn – probably in satire – to the recommendation that the state abandon lethal injection and move toward a 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,” the Judge wrote. “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.”

The execution now of Joseph Wood, like the botched execution in Oklahoma, ought to shake us to the core as to what we are doing here.

As NBC described the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma – it began “a backdrop of controversy, with death-row inmates across the country challenging states’ last-minute changes to lethal injections and the secrecy that shrouds drug suppliers” and it ended as a nightmare, “with the convicted murderer appearing to regain consciousness and struggling to sit up, prison officials halting the execution, and Lockett then dying of a massive heart attack.”

Judge Kozinski is right, these are indeed “brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality.” We are now seeing it first hand – repeated over and over again.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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34 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    “The Department of Corrections said the medical team checked on Wood eight times and declared that he was “deeply sedated” or “comatose” and “never in pain or distress.”

    With all due respect to the assessments made by the medical team involved, this is quite simply a determination that cannot be made. When a patient is sedated and paralyzed, we simply have no way of knowing for sure what they are feeling.

    It is not at all uncommon for a patient that we have been assured by the anesthesiologist is ready for incision, to flinch, causing us to back off and wait until they are really fully under. It is also not unusual for a patient to relate an event that occurred in the operating room that they could not have possibly witnessed if they were “completely sedated” as we had thought.

    However, I do not think the central point here should be whether this one individual man did or did not experience pain. The fact is that the execution was flawed. This is incontrovertible. What was anticipated to take minutes lasted hours. Since no one is disputing this, how can there be any doubt that this method is inadequate and should be abandoned regardless of whether or not one shares my belief that the death penalty itself is morally indefensible and should be abandoned.

  2. Barack Palin

    “I don’t believe he was gasping for air. I don’t believe he was suffering,” said Dietz’s sister, Jeannie Brown. “Who really suffered was my dad and my sister when they were killed.”

    Sorry, maybe it’s just me but I can’t feel sorry for the killer.

    1. David Greenwald

      My view is that this is not about feeling sorry for a killer, it is about upholding the values that we claim to hold dear as a society. If we believe it is wrong to kill, how do we teach that by killing? If we believe it is wrong for one person to inflict suffering on another, how do we uphold that when we as a society as doing what we claim is wrong?

      If you want to anchor your belief that killing can be justified on the notion that we hold a legitimate power through due process of law – how does that square with the fact that process here has clearly broken down?

      So fine, don’t feel sorry for the killer, but that’s not the end of the story.

      1. D.D.

        When I was a child I saw a comic strip in Mad Magazine of a parent whacking their child. The caption was “Don’t SLAP hit SLAP your sister.”
        The hypocricy is baffling to me. Kill someone to teach that killing is wrong?

      2. WesC

        DG: If we believe it is wrong to kill, how do we teach that by killing?

        Apparently the majority of “we” in Arizona feel it is not wrong to kill in certain circumstances.

          1. tribeUSA

            DD–murder is a legal definition; a more accurate description might be pre-meditated killing. Most people, including myself, distinguish between different kinds of killing. Most people would agree that under some circumstances, killing in self-defense is entirely justified (think of a large strong deranged killer who has just brutally slain a child of yours, and is rushing over with his hunting knife to your other two children, and you have a gun with 1 bullet left–what do you do?)

            The larger point is there is good reason to distinguish between different kinds of killings; circumstances do indeed matter. Thus when someone is sentenced to death by our court system , his killing is called an execution, not a murder. Such executions have been carried out when they are judged to be for the greater good of the tribe/society for all of history (and pre-history from anthropological evidence) in most cultures.

          1. WesC

            On August 7, 1989, Wood drove to his ex-girlfriends family’s paint shop, where Eugene, Debra, and other employees were working. He approached Eugene, drew a revolver, and fired one shot into Eugene’s chest, fatally wounding him. Debra attempted to call for help, but Wood grabbed her by the neck from behind and placed the gun to her chest. She screamed “No Joe, don’t”, to which Wood replied “I told you I was going to do it, I have to kill you.” Wood then shot Debra twice in the chest.

            I don’t think you can put him on the same level as Jesus Christ or the millions on Jews who perished during the holocaust.

          2. Davis Progressive

            yeah but that’s not really the question. no doubt he did something very bad. but that doesn’t justify us also doing something very bad.

        1. D.D.

          T USA stated
          “…and pre-history from anthropological evidence) in most cultures.”
          Behavior in anthropologicl pre-history cultures is not necessarily the best behavior for our 2014 culture.

    2. D.D.

      With all due respect, the article is not about sympathy. You might just be missing the point. Or maybe not. I don’t know for sure what you were thinking. Just like we don’t know for sure what this man was feeling. My 95 year old Mom had a stroke, then died after being comatose. She could still hear us, she just couldn’t move or open her eyes. Her doctor told us her hearing was the last sense to go, but she may have had her sense of touch wen I held her hand. She had a DNR.
      Many people in Tucson remember this horrific crime. It sort of reminds me of the battered woman in Winters who I believe even had a legal resraining order against her abuser.
      No one is saying Wood’s crime of premedidated murder of two innocents was okay. That’s why you might be missing the point here. Or maybe not.

  3. Tia Will

    BP

    Feeling sorry for the killer is totally beside the point.
    If our society has determined that a process is should be done, then we should be accomplishing it in the manner in which it is designed to function.
    That clearly is not happening with these executions by “lethal injection”.

  4. Barack Palin

    “His final words were, “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.”

    The poor killer wants God to forgive us all. Really? Forgive us? Good for him that his pain has stopped but the pain will live on for all of his victim’s families.

  5. Tia Will

    BP

    I would hope that all who believe that there is a God that provides forgiveness would want it for all of our own transgressions as well as those of everyone else.

    1. D.D.

      Re: victims’ suffering: It’s interesting to note that Jaycee Dugard and her Mom agreed with the punishment of the criminal that abducted her. They are victims who understand first hand the horrors of a heinous crime. If they are okay with the sentence of life in prison, no possibility of parole, maybe we can all learn something from those victims.
      (No need to explain to me that he did not commit murder so no chance of the death penalty. That isn’t really my point.)

  6. WesC

    They were unable to administer a lethal dose of Versed and Dilaudid. Perhaps there was someone directly involved such as the medical/pharmacy consultant, person preparing the IV’s, or administering the drugs that is against the death penalty. They could have felt that if they could thoroughly botch the execution then executions by lethal injection would stopped. Another possibility is that it was an administrative decision to use the lowest possible lethal dose without realizing that the range of tolerance to these drugs can be quite dramatic.

    1. Davis Progressive

      it doesn’t seem likely that the same problem happening in ohio and in arizona would be the result of sabotage. it’s unlikely that sabotage would occur in the first place. you don’t seem to understand how protocols are administered.

      1. WesC

        As a RN with over 20 years experience in a variety of correctional settings that include writing policies and procedures, administering and evaluating policies, procedures and protocols, and investigating bad outcomes, I know exactly how protocols are supposed to be administered, and how they are sometimes are not.

        With the original lethal cocktail the administration of a bolus of potassium after sedation and respiratory paralysis ensured that the heart would immediately stop. It was stated that this large dose of potassium may cause excruciating pain so it was discontinued. They now seem to be using cocktails that for whatever reason have not been thoroughly vetted, and the result is this.

        1. Davis Progressive

          ok. i’ve actually observed a few executions in my time. most people are not really aware of how it works.

          i go back to kozynski’s argument, i think it’s time we acknowledge the barbarity or end it. stick a guy in a 6 by 10 for the rest of his life with only one hour out a day, i think that’s pretty bad punishment.

          1. WesC

            The 6×10 cell with only 1 hr out/day is only for those in Administrative Segregation Units (ASU), and Secure Housing Units (SHU). There is no reason that a person doing life without parole, no matter how heinous their crime, would be put in an ASU or SHU housing unit unless they “earned” it by committing other violent or criminal acts once in prison, and even then it would be temporary. Those who were truly predators and convicted of child and/or women rape/torture/killers type crimes would be moved to protective custody prisons or yards where they would among similar inmates and be safe from other inmates who might want to harm or kill them for preying on women and children. Once in a protective custody housing area they would have all of the privileges afforded other inmates.

          2. D.D.

            The lifer inmate still has to deal with aggressive, unscrupulous guards in addition to other violent inmates, just itching for a fight.

        2. tribeUSA

          WesC–I vaguely recall seeing an article a couple of years ago stating that the old formulations used for death penalty by lethal injection were getting to be difficult or impossible to find; due to anti-death penalty protestors demonstrating outside the manufacturing facilities that made the formulations, who did not want the bad publicity. The newer formulations being used are apparently not as reliable (I don’t recall seeing newsclips about slow death-row injection deaths; but remember several now within the last year or so).

  7. WesC

    Here are 2 different eye witness accounts of the execution from a Forbes magazine article:

    From the account of Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer,

    “I counted about 640 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.”

    Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, told the newspaper:

    “He went to sleep and appeared to be snoring,” she said. “This was my first execution, and I was surprised at how peaceful it was.”

    1. D.D.

      What else would the A.G.’s office say, really? “Snoring…Peaceful” killing. That makes killing another human being more easy to digest, I guess.

  8. Davis Progressive

    john mccain:

    “I believe in the death penalty for certain crimes. But that is not an acceptable way of carrying it out. And people who were responsible should be held responsible. The lethal injection needs to be an indeed lethal injection and not the bollocks-upped situation that just prevailed. That’s torture.”

  9. Robert Canning

    WesC says: “The 6×10 cell with only 1 hr out/day is only for those in Administrative Segregation Units (ASU), and Secure Housing Units (SHU). There is no reason that a person doing life without parole, no matter how heinous their crime, would be put in an ASU or SHU housing unit unless they “earned” it by committing other violent or criminal acts once in prison, and even then it would be temporary. Those who were truly predators and convicted of child and/or women rape/torture/killers type crimes would be moved to protective custody prisons or yards where they would among similar inmates and be safe from other inmates who might want to harm or kill them for preying on women and children. Once in a protective custody housing area they would have all of the privileges afforded other inmates.”

    Although Wes (hi Wes!) is generally correct about how inmates get into ASU (also called disciplinary segregation) and SHU – I would add that our state’s prison system ends up using ASU for a lot of reasons – some not related to disciplinary reasons. Over the years – partly because of over-crowding and partly because of poor policy-making – ASU gets used for inmates who request protective custody, inmates who are under investigation (and considered a threat to the “safety and security” of the institution), and other things. Inmates can spend time in ASU for repeated making of “pruno” or prison alcohol. And also, although ASU stays are considered temporary, they can be lengthy for some, particularly those who commit infractions while in segregation – which just lengthens their stay. Stays in ASU can be six months or more. If you really want to know, you can go to the CDCR COMPSTAT website and look at average length of stay in ASU for all prisons. For instance, at Corcoran State Prison, the average length of stay in ASU is over 100 days for the last few months. New Folsom has an average over 80 days in 2014 and Pelican Bay well over 100 days. These are all high security prisons with more violent offenders, but even so — some may have mental health problems that could worsen in ASU. Right now CDCR has over 5800 inmates in ASU and when the average length of stay is over 100 days, you know there are guys there who have been in segregation (23 hours in a cell) for a long time.

    This is off-topic but I just had to put in my two-cents.

    1. D.D.

      Your comment seems very much ON topic.
      Here is another letter from Damien Echols to his wife, written while he was still sitting in a cell on death row. (He was innocent.) From the book written by Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, Yours for Eternity, page 395:
      “October 19, 2004
      My loveliest,
      I did go outside today after all. I was so exhausted from walking around in circles for an hour that it made me sick. I’m not used to anything but this cell. That’s how it will be for a great while when I first get out, too. I’ll need a cane. I came back and fell into a deep sleep.
      Now, they’re not even drying our clothes. They pull them straight out of the washer and send them to us soaking wet. We’ve had pancakes for the last three meals, because they’ve run out of supplies in the kitchen. They’ve got enough pancake mix to last forever, it seems. That’s why I say I’ll never eat another pancake once I’m out of here.
      Do you remember that guard who had me sign the copy of Mara’s book for him? He killed himself. A single gunshot. I can still feel him around. It plagues me. it’s one of those things I’ll see forever.
      I love you,
      D.

  10. D.D.

    I’ve read workers’ comp stress claims. Some of them were prison guards. A lot of stressed out people. Not a good formula for cool – headed behavior when one is really stressed. Apparently that cop who beat a defenseless black woman, in plain view next to a busy freeway, was also stressed to the max. A recipe for bad prison guard behavior when the guard is too stressed.
    Occasionally they are filling in for another guard, and they may be sleep deprived, too. And scared.

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