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Complications During Ariz. Inmate's Execution Reignite Controversy


Arizona executed a man last night, convicted of murdering his girlfriend and her father 25 years ago. But the focus of his execution was on how he died. After being injected with a combination of lethal drugs, it took nearly two hours for the convict to die. His attorneys called it the latest in a series of botched executions around the country. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Jude Joffe-Block has the story.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: The state injected Joseph Wood with a cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone at 1:52 p.m. on Wednesday. But he did not die until 3:49 p.m., 1 hour and 57 minutes later. Witnesses say he was unconscious, but gasping for air for much of that time.

MICHAEL KIEFER: He would open his mouth and you'd see his chest move. And it would go all the way down to his stomach, so it was a clear gasp.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Michael Kiefer of the Arizona Republic witnessed the execution and spoke at a news conference afterward. Kiefer said he heard Wood making a deep, sucking, snoring sound. This was the fifth execution Kiefer witnessed.

KIEFER: Usually it takes about 10 minutes. The person goes to sleep. This was not that.

JOFFE-BLOCK: This was the first time the state tried out this particular drug combination. The same two drug cocktail caused complications in an Ohio execution in January. Like many states, Arizona has been scrambling to find new ways to perform lethal injections, as some key drug manufacturers have stopped providing lethal drugs. Local TV reporter Troy Hayden was another witness yesterday.

TROY HAYDEN: The two drugs worked. He eventually died. But I can't imagine this is what the criminal justice system had hoped for, when they came up with this new drug protocol. It was tough for everybody in that room. And at a certain point, you wondered if he was ever going to die.

RICHARD BROWN: You guys are blowing this all out of proportion about these drugs.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Richard Brown, a relative the two people Wood murdered in 1989, spoke at the same news conference.

BROWN: You know, this man, I mean, conducted that horrifying murder. And you guys are going, oh, let's worry about the drug and how he effect. Well, why didn't we give him a bullet? Why didn't we give him some Drano? You know, these people that do this, that are on death row, they deserve to suffer a little bit.

JOFFE-BLOCK: State officials deny the execution was botched. A representative from the attorney general's office, who also was a witness, said Wood was not gasping for air. Wood's attorneys, however, filed emergency motions to halt the execution, after it passed the one hour mark. Dale Baich based is a federal public defender.

DALE BAICH: He was struggling to breathe. He was gasping for air. And under the Constitution, executions cannot be cruel or unusual.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Wood died before the courts ruled. For months before the execution, Wood's attorneys had fought to get the state to reveal who supplied the drugs it planned to use. But the courts ultimately allowed the state to proceed without giving that information. Baich said what happened to his client proves the need for transparency.

BAICH: Who was supplying the drugs? What are the qualifications of the people carrying out the executions? How did the state come up with this formula to carry out this execution? And why did it pick these drugs?

JOFFE-BLOCK: Baich wants an independent investigation. Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, says there will be an internal review. But in a statement, she said Wood die in a lawful manner. And by eyewitness and medical account, he did not suffer. For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jude Joffe-Block