FLORENCE, Ariz. — The nearly two-hour execution of a convicted murderer prompted a series of phone calls involving the governor’s office, the prison director, lawyers and judges as the inmate gasped for more than 90 minutes.
They discussed the brain activity and heart rate of Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was gasping over and over as witnesses looked on. The judge was concerned that no monitoring equipment showed whether the inmate had brain function, and they talked about whether to stop the execution while it was so far along.
But the defense lawyers’ pleading on the grounds that Wood could be suffering while strapped to a gurney, breathing in and out and snoring, did no good.
Nearly two hours after he’d been sedated Wednesday, Wood finally died.
A transcript of an emergency court hearing released Thursday amid debate over whether the execution was botched reveals the behind-the-scenes drama and early questions about whether something was going wrong.
Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan read a statement Thursday outside his office dismissing the notion the execution was botched, calling it an “erroneous conclusion” and “pure conjecture.” He said IV lines in the inmate’s arms were “perfectly placed” and insisted that Wood felt no pain.
But he also said the Arizona attorney general’s office will not seek any new death warrants while his office completes a review of execution practices. He didn’t take questions from reporters.
Defense lawyer Dale Baich called it a “horrifically botched execution” that should have taken 10 minutes.
U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake convened the urgent hearing at the request of one of Wood’s attorneys, notified by her colleagues at the execution that things were problematic.
A lawyer for the state, Jeffrey A. Zick, assured Wake that Wood was comatose and not feeling pain.
He spoke to the Arizona Department of Corrections director on the phone and was given assurances from medical staff at the prison that Wood was not in any pain. Zick also said the governor’s office was notified of the situation.
Zick said that at one point, a second dose of drugs was given, but he did not provide specifics. The participants discussed Wood’s brain activity and heart rate.
“I am told that Mr. Wood is effectively brain dead and that this is the type of reaction that one gets if they were taken off of life support. The brain stem is working but there’s no brain activity,” he said, according to the transcript.
The judge then asked, “Do you have the leads connected to determine his brain state?”
The lawyer said he didn’t think so.
“Well if there are not monitors connected with him, if it’s just a visual observation, that is very concerning as not being adequate,” the judge said.
Wood died at 3:49 p.m., and judges were notified of his death while they were still considering whether to stop it.
Zick later informed the judge that Wood had died.
Anesthesiology experts say they’re not surprised that the combination of drugs took so long to kill Wood.
“This doesn’t actually sound like a botched execution. This actually sounds like a typical scenario if you used that drug combination,” said Karen Sibert, an anesthesiologist and associate professor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Sibert was speaking on behalf of the California Society of Anesthesiologists.
Sibert said the sedative midazolam would not completely render Wood incapacitated. If he’d felt pain or been conscious, he would have been able to open his eyes and move, she said. The other drug was the painkiller hydromorphone.
“It’s fair to say that those are drugs that would not expeditiously achieve (death),” said Daniel Nyhan, a professor and interim director at the anesthesiology department at Johns Hopkins medical school.
But the third execution in six months to appear to go awry rekindled the debate over the death penalty and handed potentially new evidence to those building a case against lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment.
An Ohio inmate gasped in similar fashion for nearly 30 minutes in January. An Oklahoma inmate died of a heart attack in April, minutes after prison officials halted his execution because the drugs weren’t being administered properly.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said later that she was ordering a review of the state’s execution process, saying she’s concerned by how long it took for the drug protocol to kill Wood.
Family members of Wood’s victims in a 1989 double murder said they had no problems with the way 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, the brother-in-law of Debbie Dietz. “Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?”
Arizona uses the same drugs that were used in the Ohio execution. A different drug combination was used in the Oklahoma case.
States have refused to reveal details such as which pharmacies are supplying lethal injection drugs and who is administering them out of concerns that the drugmakers could be harassed.
Wood filed several appeals that were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court. Wood argued he and the public have a right to know details about the state’s method for lethal injections, the qualifications of the executioner and who makes the drugs. Such demands for greater transparency have become a legal tactic in death penalty cases.
Wood was convicted of fatally shooting Dietz, 29, and her father, Gene Dietz, 55, at their auto repair shop in Tucson.