Killer's execution takes two hours, but Arizona governor says 'he did not suffer'

Gasps, snores and chest heaves too in double murderer Joseph Wood's drawn-out killing by lethal injection. He didn't suffer, governor says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 11:10pm

Joseph Rudolph Wood looked around the death chamber of the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence and glanced at the doctors as they made preparations for his execution, locating the proper veins and inserting two lines into his arms.

Wood then uttered 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.

He smiled at the victim's family, angering them, and made eye contact with a deacon. A subtle look of panic took over his face.

[Wood] has been gasping for more than an hour. He is still alive

Officials administered the lethal drugs at 1.52pm. Wood's eyes closed. About 10 minutes later, the gasping began.

Wood's jaw dropped, his chest expanded, and he let out a gasp. The gasps repeated every five to 12 seconds, hundreds of times. He could be heard snoring loudly when an administrator informed the gallery that Wood was still sedated, despite the sounds.

As the episode dragged on, Wood's lawyers frantically drew up an emergency legal appeal, asking federal and state courts to step in and stop the execution.

"He has been gasping for more than an hour," the lawyers pleaded. "He is still alive."

The Arizona Supreme Court convened an impromptu telephone hearing with lawyers for the defence and the state.

Wood (pictured) took his last breath at 3.37pm. Twelve minutes later, Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan declared Wood dead. The state court was informed while its hearing was under way.

It took one hour and 57 minutes for the execution to be completed. By then, Wood had been gasping for more than an hour and a half.

The execution reignited the death penalty debate as critics denounced it as cruel and said it raised questions about the two-drug combination Arizona uses.

It was the third prolonged execution this year in the United States, including one in Ohio in which an inmate gasped for half an hour. An Oklahoma inmate died of a heart attack in April, minutes after his execution was halted because the drugs were not being administered properly.

Wood murdered Debbie Dietz and her father, Gene, in 1989 at a Tucson car repair shop.

"What I saw today with him being executed, it is nothing compared to what happened on August 7, 1989," said Debbie Dietz's sister, Jeanne Brown. "What's excruciating is seeing your father laying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister in a pool of blood."

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer ordered the Corrections Department to review the process. She said Wood "died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer".

"This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims - and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family."

Arizona uses the same drugs - the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone - that were used in the Ohio execution. A different combination was used in the Oklahoma case.

"These procedures are unreliable and the consequences are horrific," said Megan McCracken, of the University of California, Berkeley, school of law's death penalty clinic.

Death Lingers

April 29, 2014: Clayton Lockett's execution in Oklahoma was halted by the state's prison director after Lockett gritted his teeth, tried to lift his head and convulsed. When the execution was halted, Lockett had already been declared unconscious. He died of a heart attack.

January 16, 2014: Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped during the 26 minutes it took him to die in Ohio's chamber.

September 15, 2009: In Ohio, inmate Romell Broom avoided execution after prison technicians were unable to find a suitable vein after trying for two hours. Broom remains on death row.

May 3, 1995: Emmitt Foster's punishment in Missouri was halted seven minutes after it began when the chemicals stopped flowing because the leather straps binding him to the gurney were too tight. Foster gasped and convulsed. The straps were loosened and he died 30 minutes later.

May 10, 1994: Serial killer John Wayne Gacy's execution in Illinois was interrupted as the lethal chemicals unexpectedly solidified, clogging the intravenous tube. The tube was replaced and 10 minutes later, the punishment resumed.