Secret Drugs Used in Arizona Execution Where Inmate Gasps for Air Nearly Two Hours


Arizona’s execution of Joseph Wood on Wednesday using a secret experimental drug protocol took more than two hours, during which witnesses reported that he gasped and snorted more than 600 times.

Arizona used the same drug protocol that resulted in the botched execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio earlier this year, but in new experimental doses.

As traditional lethal injection drugs like pentobarbital have become unavailable because manufacturers will not sell them for use in executions, states have been experimenting with new drug combinations and with alternative, sometimes illegal means for obtaining lethal injection drugs. Arizona is among several states that have obtained drugs from unregulated compounding pharmacies and fought to keep the source of the drugs secret.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had stayed Mr. Wood’s execution and ordered the state to release information about the source of the drugs and the training of those who would carry out the execution, but the United States Supreme Court lifted the stay on Tuesday, allowing the state to maintain secrecy.

The execution started at 1:52 p.m. at the Arizona State Prison Complex – Florence. As a combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a morphine derivative, were administered, Mr. Wood closed his eyes and appeared sedated, witnesses reported. After a few minutes, he looked to be yawning, and went on to gasp more than 600 times over the course of an hour and 40 minutes. One witness said he was gulping for air the way a fish does when it is taken out of water. These drugs can produce a condition called air hunger, in which the gasping victim is unable to absorb oxygen.

When the medical team determined that Mr. Wood was still alive an hour after the execution started, his lawyers filed an emergency request to halt the execution. During a telephonic hearing on the motion, the court received word that Mr. Wood was dead. He was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m. The court granted a request to preserve tissue and blood samples and labels from the drugs used for further investigation.

Dale Baich, an attorney for Mr. Wood, said in a statement, “The experiment using midazolam combined with hydromorphone to carry out an execution failed today in Arizona. It took Joseph Wood two hours to die, and he gasped and struggled to breath[e] for about an hour and forty minutes. We will renew our efforts to get information about the manufacturer of drugs as well as how Arizona came up with the experimental formula of drugs it used today. Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror — a bungled execution. The public should hold its officials responsible and demand to make this process more transparent.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer ordered a review of the execution, saying she was “concerned by the length of time” that it took. The director of the Department of Corrections said they will conduct a full review and are waiting on results of a toxicology study and autopsy. Yesterday the Arizona attorney general called a temporary halt to executions in the state.