FLORENCE, Ariz. (AP) — 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.
A transcript of an emergency court hearing reveals the behind-the-scenes drama as the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood unfolded.
Just 22 minutes before Wood officially died, one of his attorneys pleaded with a judge to stop the execution. The 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 stopped taking those gasps that almost had a pattern to them. Every five seconds. Then every six seconds. Now seven.
He died at 3:49 p.m., and judges were notified of his death while they were still considering whether to stop it.
"I just learned that the IV team leader has confirmed Mr. Wood's death," Arizona attorney Jeffrey A. Zick told the judge.
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.
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 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.
They talked about whether it would do any good to stop the execution while it was so far along.
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.
An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution saw Wood start gasping shortly after a sedative and a pain killer were injected into his veins. He gasped more than 600 times over the next hour and a half. During the gasps, his jaw dropped and his chest expanded and contracted.
An administrator checked on Wood a half dozen times. His breathing slowed as a member of the clergy said a prayer while holding a rosary.
"Throughout this execution, I conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress," state Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan said after the execution.
Defense lawyer Dale Baich called it a "horrifically botched execution" that should have taken 10 minutes.
"Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution," Baich said. "The public should hold its officials responsible and demand to make this process more transparent."
Ryan read a statement Thursday, dismissing what he called a "premature and erroneous conclusion" that it was a botched execution.
Family members of Wood's victims in a double 1989 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 and her father, 55-year-old Gene Dietz, at their auto repair shop in Tucson.
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