FLORENCE, Ariz. — As a condemned murderer gasped for more than 90 minutes in the death chamber, a judge convened an urgent hearing in which a state lawyer assured him that the inmate was comatose and not feeling any pain.
A transcript of the emergency court hearing reveals the behind-the-scenes drama as the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood unfolded Wednesday. The hearing included a defense lawyer, an attorney for the state and the judge.
The nation’s third execution in six months 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.
Wood took nearly two hours to die, and the execution lasted so long that his lawyers had time to file an emergency appeal while it was ongoing. The courts learned of his death during the discussions.
“He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” Wood’s lawyers wrote in a legal filing demanding that the courts stop it. “He is still alive.”
In a call with Judge Neil V. Wake, the participants discussed Wood’s brain activity, heart rate and whether he was feeling pain. They talked about whether it would do any good to stop the execution while it was so far along.
Jeffrey A. Zick, a lawyer for the state, 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.
“The director indicated that in consultation with the IV team leader, who is a medical doctor, Mr. Wood is apparently comatose; that he cannot change course at his point,” Zick told the judge.
Zick said at one point, a second dose of drugs was given, but he did not provide specifics.
“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.
Zick later informed the judge that Wood had died.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne’s office said Wood, 55, was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., one hour and 57 minutes after the execution started.
It is the third prolonged execution this year in the U.S., including one in Ohio in which an inmate gasped in similar fashion for nearly 30 minutes. 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 full review of the state’s execution process, saying she’s concerned by how long it took for the administered 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 deacon 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.”
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?”
Wood looked at the family members as he delivered his final words, saying he was thankful for Jesus Christ as his savior. At one point, he smiled at them, which angered the family.
Arizona uses the same drugs – the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone – that were used in the Ohio execution earlier this year. 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.
Deborah Denno, professor of criminal law and criminal procedure at Fordham Law School, said it may be up to Legislatures or the public to bring any change.
“I think every time one of these botches happens, it leads to questioning the death penalty even more,” she said.
Attorney general’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, who witnessed the execution, said Wood “went to sleep, and looked to be snoring.”
“This was my first execution, and I was surprised by how peaceful it was,” Grisham said in an email. “There was absolutely no snorting or gasping for air.”
Wood was convicted of fatally shooting Dietz and her father, 55-year-old Gene Dietz, at their auto repair shop in Tucson.