Eye on the Courts: Can We Acknowledge the Wood Execution Was Botched?

death-penaltyIn the hours that followed the execution of Joseph Wood, Governor Jan Brewer would issue a statement that read in part, “While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process. One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer.”

But in the short time that has passed since that statement has been issued, new information suggests that Mr. Wood may well have not died in a manner prescribed by the law and the question of suffering has been unaddressed.

Late last week, documents were released that suggested something went wrong. As CNN reported over the weekend, “A single lethal injection was supposed to speedily end Joseph Wood’s life last week. When it didn’t, Arizona executioners gave him a total of 15 doses of a novel drug cocktail.”

Dale Baich on Friday stated, “The Arizona execution protocol explicitly states that a prisoner will be executed using 50 milligrams of hydromorphone and 50 milligrams of midazolam. The execution logs released today by the Arizona Department of Corrections shows that the experimental drug protocol did not work as promised. Instead of the one dose as required under the protocol, ADC injected 15 separate doses of the drug combination, resulting in the most prolonged execution in recent memory. This is why an independent investigation by a non-governmental authority is necessary.”

The LA Times lays out the chronology, “On July 23, Wood received an injection at 1:52 p.m. at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence. The second dose was administered at 2:08 p.m., and more doses were injected at a rate of almost every couple of minutes until Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m.”

The Times reports, “The final five doses were administered while Wood’s lawyers were attempting to persuade a federal judge to stop the execution. The hearing with U.S. Judge Neil Wake, a conference call with the chief counsel of the Arizona attorney general’s office, began at 3:27 p.m. The execution had been going on for more than an hour.”

The revelation that 15 doses were given to Mr. Wood contradicts earlier accounts from Arizona’s Assistant Attorney General reported by Reuters on July 24 that they gave “at least two full doses of a two-drug lethal injection cocktail to a convicted killer before he finally succumbed nearly two hours after his execution began, the state’s assistant attorney general said on Thursday.”

“The IV team, which includes a licensed medical doctor, verified multiple times during the procedure that the inmate was comatose and never in pain,” Charles Ryan, director of Arizona’s Department of Corrections, said in a statement.

Arizona’s State Senator Ed Ableser released a statement last week.

“I support the Governor’s call for an investigation into why it took almost two hours to execute an inmate last week. However, I feel the investigation should not be done by the Department of Corrections itself, but by an independent investigator who will thoroughly and impartially answer the questions of what happened and why,” said Senator Ableser.

He would add, “It is important to maintain public trust in our system of justice and our government. In pursuing justice, we must also remain faithful to our Constitution. The botched execution has caused serious concern on both sides of the aisle. We must do all we can to seek answers with honesty and transparency while avoiding any appearance of impropriety in this investigation.”

He would call it barbaric and added, “This one is really on (Governor Brewer’s) shoulders. She can sign an executive order, put a stay on executions and let the Legislature find a better way to deal with violent criminals who deserve the maximum penalty, but one that is not cruel and unusual.”

US Attorney General Eric Holder told PBS this weekend, “We are certainly looking at our own protocol in the federal government. There’s not been a federal execution since 2003. There’s essentially been a moratorium.”

He added, “We’re in the process, pursuant to the directions of the president, in looking at the protocol that we would use, the cocktail, the drugs that would be used if there were a federal execution. But I’m greatly troubled by what happened in Oklahoma and in Arizona.”

“There may not be a legal requirement for transparency and talking about, describing the drugs that are used. But you sometimes have to go beyond that which is legally required to do something that is right. And for the state to exercise that greatest of all powers, to end a human life, it seems to me, just on a personal level, that transparency would be a good thing, and to share the information about what chemicals are being used, what drugs are being used,” Mr. Holder said, “And it would seem to me that would be a better way to do this.”

Eric Holder would later state, “We have people from our Civil Rights Division, our Criminal Division, various other components within the department looking at our protocol and taking into account what we have seen happen in the states recently, as we try to work our way through how the federal government is going to impose the death penalty.”

Senator John McCain, after the execution, stated that it amounted to “torture.”

He told reports, that the drawn-out lethal injection execution of Joseph Wood was “terrible.”

He added, “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,” he said in an interview. “The lethal injection needs to be an indeed lethal injection and not the bollocks-upped situation that just prevailed. That’s torture.”

The question is what will be done. There have been more calls for changing executions back to firing squads.

Ironically, it was Chief Judge Kozinski who warned of this in his dissent in the case.

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.”

—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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  1. WesC

    One way that I can imagine why it took this large of a dose to kill him is if the IV catheter inserted into the vein in his arm became dislodged and poked through the walls of the vein into the surrounding soft tissue, resulting in most of drugs being infused into the surrounding soft tissue. The drugs infused into the surrounding soft tissue would be absorbed over time and result in a delayed death, which appears to have happened. This could also happen if the volume of the IV fluid is infused at a rate that is faster than the ability of the vein to accommodate it. The walls of the vein develop small tears that allow the fluid to leak into the surrounding soft tissue. Another cause would be unlikely but possible, and that is that his arms were restrained at a location proximal to the site where the IV was inserted, and the restraints functioned as a sort of tourniquet. This would result in the pressure of IV fluid causing small tears in the walls of the veins and leakage of drug into the surrounding soft tissue.

    1. Tia Will


      I think that one of the situations that you have described is the most likely. However, there are other potential points in the process where error could have occurred. For example, if there had been an error in the compounding or mixing of the infusion liquid. This had been a common mistake in the distant past when medications having different strengths were stored in close proximity in similar appearing bottles and the only way that the nurses could tell the difference was by reading the fine print on the labels. The error is much less common today since there are multiple safeguards in place in pharmacies, clinics and hospitals. I have no idea whether or not such safeguards are taken with medications intended for executions.

      1. WesC

        Tia Will

        You are correct. Medication errors are unfortunately very common. According to the Institute of Medicine’s July 2006 report Preventing Medication Errors, medication errors harm an estimated 1.5 million Americans each year, resulting in upward of $3.5 billion in extra medical costs. Medication errors include cases where the wrong medication is given, where the wrong dose of the right medication is given, or when medication is given the wrong way (for example, in pill form rather than liquid) or when it is given at the wrong time.

        This is 2006 data and only included those harmed by the error. Everyone knows medication errors are vastly under reported, and still a pretty common occurrence.

        In this execution we will probably never know what actually went wrong.

          1. Davis Progressive

            what went wrong was the drugs did not work at the dosage that was set out. those administering the drugs attempted to continue administering dosages that were not authorized even after the defense attorney sought a court order to halt the execution.

          2. WesC

            I will be more specific. Was it wrong drug? Expired drug? Wrong dose? Error in mixing drugs? Mislabeled drug vial? Drug not stored at required temperature? Errors as a result of unclear protocol? Poor training? Inappropriate assignment of staff? Malfunctioning IV pumps? Wrong type/size of IV catheter? Defective IV catheter? Staff not adequately trained on IV insertion? Did not check IV insertion site for patency? Restrained arm at poor location? Lack of 2nd or 3rd person of verification that any one of the steps in the protocol were done correctly?

            To say that the drugs did not work as intended does not answer why. I have not seen the Arizona execution protocol, but I think it is pretty safe to say that there is probably a contingency written in the protocol that covers the scenario of no response to the initial dose. The act of a defense attorney seeking a court order does not automatically stop everything. It stops when the judge responds to the request and issues a court order to stop the execution.

  2. Offering Balance

    The ACLU and anti-death penalty lawyers who keep attacking the process instead of the death penalty as a whole are directly to blame for the use of a “novel” drug combination.

    I would also support a firing squad. Much faster, efficient, and less chance for error.

    1. Tia Will

      “I would also support a firing squad. Much faster, efficient, and less chance for error.”

      How about public beheading ? Very swift if done with a guillotine.

      Near the beginning of the Game of Thrones series there is a scene in which Ned Stark, the Lord of the north,
      passes judgement on a deserter and proceeds to execute him himself. He brings his sons to witness not for the sake of revenge or blood lust, but to teach them that it is the responsibility of he who passes judgment to enact that judgement. He obviously respects life and takes it with the deepest regret. This is certainly not true of other rulers in this series who order death not for justice, but to gain power or wealth, or just out of sheer cruelty.

      I wonder how many jurors would vote for execution if they knew they were the ones who were going to be wielding the axe. Some would, I am sure. But many others like their “justice” sanitized and at a distance.

  3. Tia Will

    Offering Balance

    “The ACLU and anti-death penalty lawyers who keep attacking the process instead of the death penalty as a whole are directly to blame for the use of a “novel” drug combination.”

    I fundamentally disagree with this statement. The only ones who are directly to blame, are those who continue to insist upon having a death penalty in the first place. This has always been the root cause of botched executions of every kind. No death penalty, no botched executions.

      1. David Greenwald

        The manufacturers of the previous drug cocktail ceased production and they have had to scramble to come up with a new protocol. It is clear that this one is not working. I suspect firing squad would hasten the march toward banning the death penalty, but that may be unavoidable now after three major errors this year.

        1. WesC

          I believe they refused to sell the drugs to the Dept of Corrections, and did not stop production of the drugs. I think the case was that essentially none of the retailers wanted to get involved in selling drugs which would be used for execution for fear that if the European manufacturer were to find out they were selling their drugs for an execution, their future access to drugs from the manufacturer would be cut off.

          1. David Greenwald

            You are correct – they refuse to sell the drugs for the intended use of executions.

  4. Offering Balance

    Going to Mcdonalds on a regular basis is an act that ends in the result of gaining weight. Going after every detail of the death penalty in an effort to interrupt and draw out the process results in delays and changing of the drugs used. Its cause and effect.

    The folk that go do McDonalds don’t want to blame themselves because it feels better to blame someone else. Same with the anti-death penalty and the issue the drugs being used.

    1. David Greenwald

      My biggest concern aside from my moral belief that executions are wrong is the problem of wrongful convictions and executing an innocent person. The latest issue involving the drug protocol is now a practical concern as well.

      1. Offering Balance

        I share the same concern about the potential for wrongful convictions. I would support a narrowing of death penalty eligible cases and increased evidentiary requirements.

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