Over the weekend, a federal appeals court ruled that Joseph Wood could not be executed until Arizona disclosed more information about the drugs that would be used to end his life. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court overruled the stay, and on Wednesday afternoon Wood’s execution became the latest controversy in the ongoing debate about whether lethal injections amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The execution of the 55-year-old convicted murderer began at 1:52 p.m., and he wasn’t pronounced dead until 3:49 p.m. Astrid Galván, an Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution, says Wood gasped more than 600 times in the nearly two hours it took him to die, though state officials insist he was just snoring.
There are two versions of what took place after Wood was injected with the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromophone, a drug combination that was used in a botched Ohio execution earlier this year, but never before in Arizona. Michael Kiefer, an Arizona Republic reporter, agreed with Galván, saying he counted 660 gasps. “I just know it was not efficient,” he said. “It took a long time.”
“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. “Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.” Baich said his client’s lips were moving and he was “struggling to breathe” after officials said he was sedated. As Wood lay dying, defense attorneys had time to file an emergency appeal to a Federal District Court and call Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, demanding that the execution be stopped. Justice Kennedy turned down the request and Wood was dead before the district court responded.
State officials insist that Wood was never in pain. Attorney general’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham reported that Wood “went to sleep, and looked to be snoring.” “This was my first execution, and I was surprised by how peaceful it was,” she told the Associated Press. “There was absolutely no snorting or gasping for air.” Charles Ryan, the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, said Wood made no movements or facial expressions aside from the snoring. “Throughout this execution, I conferred and collabroated with our IV team members and was assured unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress,” Ryan said.
Governor Jan Brewer ordered a full review of the execution process, saying she’s concerned about why it took so long for the drugs to kill Wood. “One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” she said. “This is in stark contrast to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims — and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”
In 1989, Wood fatally shot his estranged girlfriend, Debbie Dietz, and her father, Gene Dietz. Dietz had obtained an order of protection against Wood after he repeatedly assaulted her. After shooting Gene Dietz in his Tucson auto repair shop, Wood grabbed Debbie by the neck and put his gun to her chest. An employee said she pleaded for her life, but Dietz said, “I told you I was going to do it. I have to kill you,” and pulled the trigger.
After Wednesday’s execution, Dietz’s family members said they were angry that Wood smiled at them while delivering his final words. “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,” Wood said. The family told reporters that they have no objection to how the execution was carried out. “This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, ‘Let’s worry about the drugs,’” said Richard Brown, Debbie Dietz’s brother-in-law. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet, why didn’t we give him Drano?”