Arizona Among States That Execute People Without Following Their Own Protocols


Botched executions may be attributable at least in part to state officials’ failure to follow their own rules governing how to carry out an execution.

The New York Times reported last week that state records and court filings made in the wake of recent botched executions in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma show that prison officials and execution team members in Arizona routinely deviate from the state’s written execution protocols.

State regulations require connecting the intravenous line to the person’s arm, but in 2010, the presiding doctor decided to place the IV near the groin instead, because it was his “preference.” In 2011, the medical team that executed Donald Beaty replaced one of the three lethal drugs with another based on information read in the drug packages and on the Internet.

In 2012, officials realized right before they were scheduled to put two men to death that their lethal drugs had expired, so they improvised, switching drugs at the last moment. The written protocol specifies that just a single dose be administered, following by a second application only if needed, but last month, officials gave Joseph Wood 15 doses during an execution that last nearly two hours.

Arizona’s Corrections Director, Charles Ryan, who has no medical training, said in depositions that he has virtually unlimited discretion to stray from the written regulations. He personally authorized the repeated doses given to Mr. Wood.

Combined with states’ increased efforts to keep execution protocols and drugs secret, executioners’ ability to depart from regulations with impunity frustrates courts’ efforts to prevent cruel and unusual punishment and hampers investigations when executions go wrong.

The federal appeals court that oversees Arizona criticized the state in a 2012 ruling, saying it “has insisted on amending its execution protocol on an ad hoc basis” and has a “rolling protocol that forces us to engage with serious constitutional questions and complicated factual issues in the waning hours before executions.”

In staying an execution in Ohio, the federal court there wrote that the state had not followed its own policies in carrying out several problematic executions. “Ohio pays lip service to standards it then often ignores without valid reasons,” the court wrote, “sometimes with no physical ramification and sometimes with what have been described as messy if not botched executions.”