Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Kris Mayes have halted executions pending an independent review into the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, & Reentry’s execution protocols.
The governor on January 20 ordered an independent commissioner to investigate “the lethal injection drug and gas chamber chemical procurement process, execution protocols, and staffing considerations, including training and experience.”
In tandem with the executive order, Attorney General Kris Mayes withdrew the one request for an execution date that was still pending and announced she would not seek new death warrants until the review was complete.
Noting that ADCRR has long needed “better oversight, accountability, and transparency,” the governor’s order acknowledges the state’s “history of executions that have resulted in serious questions about ADCRR’s execution protocols and lack of transparency.”
The most well-known of the state’s recent botched executions is that of Joseph Wood in 2014, when prison officials used a secret experimental drug protocol that took more than two hours, during which witnesses reported that Mr. Wood gasped and snorted more than 600 times.
After eight years without executions, Arizona reportedly spent more than $1.5 million to obtain lethal injection drugs and the ingredients to make cyanide gas to use in the state’s refurbished gas chamber.
Despite these preparations, there were serious problems in all three executions carried out in 2022.
Media witnesses reported that Clarence Dixon, 66, a severely mentally ill, blind, and physically frail member of the Navajo Nation, appeared to be in pain as prison staff struggled for 25 minutes to place the IV in what an expert said was a “botched” execution.
A reporter who witnessed the June 8, 2022, execution of Frank Atwood, who suffered from a degenerative spinal condition, described what he saw as “a frail old man lifted from a wheelchair onto a handicap accessible lethal injection gurney; nervous hands and perspiring faces trying to find a vein; needles puncturing skin; liquid drugs flooding a man’s existence and drowning it out.” It took prison staff at least 30 minutes to gain IV access, which they accomplished only after Mr. Atwood helped them find a vein.
Murray Hooper, 76, was executed after courts refused him access to DNA and fingerprint testing despite serious questions about the reliability of his conviction and death sentence. Prison staff took more than 20 minutes and more than one attempt to gain IV access and another 15 minutes passed before he was pronounced dead.
Fordham Law School professor Deborah Denno has studied hundreds of executions by lethal injection and found that executions “should take seven-to-ten minutes from the beginning of the IV insertion process until the moment the prisoner is declared dead.”
To “ensure these problems are not repeated,” Gov. Hobbs ordered the independent review commissioner to investigate and report on:
The State’s procurement of lethal injection drugs, including but not limited to the source of the drugs, the cost to the State, and any considerations about the drugs such as composition and expiration
The State’s procurement of gas chamber chemicals, including but not limited to the source of the chemicals, the cost to the State, and the composition of the chemicals
ADCRR procedures and protocols for conducting an execution by gas chamber and by lethal injection, including but not limited to setting lines for a lethal injection, transparency and media access, access to legal counsel for the inmate, and contingency planning, and
Staffing considerations, including but not limited to training, staffing plans to conduct executions, and staff background and experience for administering an execution.
Like Gov. Hobbs, the governors of Alabama, Ohio, and Tennessee have halted executions recently to review their execution protocols after botched or otherwise problematic executions. But so far only Arizona and Tennessee have specified that the reviews be conducted by independent investigators.
In appointing an independent commissioner to review and report their findings to the governor and attorney general, Gov. Hobbs’s order recognizes that an internal review by state corrections officials would be inadequate to improve “the transparency, accountability, and safety of the execution process.”
“[I]t’s time to address the fact that this is a system that needs better oversight on numerous fronts,” Gov. Hobbs said, pointing to her appointment of a new corrections director.