Another Horribly Botched Execution Reveals Ongoing Flaws in Lethal Drug Cocktails

The execution of Arizona inmate Joseph Wood took nearly two hours

Photo: Jason Edwards/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Joseph Wood, a convicted double murderer who was sentenced to death, took nearly two hours to die yesterday when his lethal injection went awry. Witnesses told NBC News that, after being sedated, Wood seemed to drift to sleep only to begin making snoring noises and—more than 600 times—contorting his face in a similar way to that a "fish makes when it's taken out of water." As minutes dragged into hours, witnesses began to wonder "if he ever was going to die," NBC continues. 

Wood did eventually die, a full hour and 57 minutes after he was first sedated. Normally, the process takes eight to 15 minutes, depending on the procedure. 

Wood's botched execution highlights a growing concern about the death penalty and the drugs used to carry it out. This is especially true because Wood was executed using the same drug cocktail—a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone—used in an Ohio execution back in January that took nearly half an hour to complete and also resulted in gasping-like movements from the executed inmate. Likewise, in April, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett took nearly an hour to die when his "vein failed" and he began mumbling in the middle of the execution. After that botched execution, NBC News writes, "President Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct a review of execution protocols across the country, but that is still under way." 

One big problem, as Smart News wrote previously, is that States do not have to disclose where they get their lethal injection drugs, making it difficult to verify that they are indeed able to carry out the task at hand. The so-called compounding pharmacies where prisons often source their drugs do not have to undergo the same rigorous approval processes that larger manufacturers face. 

Lawyers argue that such lengthy executions should be considered "cruel and unusual punishment." As Deborah Denno, professor of criminal law and criminal procedure at Fordham Law School, told the AP, as more and more of these botched executions hit the news, "It will reach a point where the public will question the value of these execution procedures generally, and perhaps the death penalty itself."

In California, that point might have already been reached. Last week, a federal judge ruled that a different set of delays—in that case, the long wait from sentence to execution—should also be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Based on that line of thinking the judge deemed the state's death penalty unconstitutional. The legal decision could open the door to California joining the 18 other states that do not have the death penalty.  

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