Phoenix: An Arizona inmate took almost two hours to die by lethal injection, and "gasped and snorted" before dying in the latest botched execution to raise questions about the death penalty in the United States.
The execution of double murderer Joseph Wood began at 1.52pm at a state prison complex, and he was pronounced dead at 3.49pm, the Arizona attorney-general's office said.
What would normally be a 10- to 15-minute procedure dragged on for nearly two hours, as Wood, according to witnesses including reporters and one of his federal defenders, Dale Baich, appeared repeatedly to gasp.
Joseph Wood's execution took almost two hours. Photo: Reuters
“I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr Baich told The Washington Post. “Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.”
In a bizarre twist, Wood's lawyers filed an emergency appeal to a US District Court to halt the procedure even as Wood lay on the gurney and even called Justice Anthony Kennedy of the US Supreme Court for relief.
"He is still alive," the lawyers said in the federal appeal, filed just after 3pm. "This execution has violated Mr Wood's Eighth Amendment right to be executed in the absence of cruel and unusual punishment. We respectfully request that this court stop the execution and require that the Department of Corrections use the lifesaving provisions required in its protocol."
Wood died before the District Court responded, and Justice Kennedy turned down the request to halt the procedure, said Robin Konrad, a lawyer for Wood.
At 3.39pm, one of the defence lawyers placed an emergency call to three justices from the Arizona Supreme Court, which had authorised the execution at the last minute. But 10 minutes later, Wood lay dead.
State officials insisted that Wood had been comatose throughout the procedure and did not suffer.
"I can tell you, he was snoring," said Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney-general, who was a witness. "There was zero gasping or snorting and that's just the truth. He was asleep."
Mr Baich responded: "My observation was that he was gasping and struggling to breathe. I couldn't tell if he was snoring. Even if he was snoring, it took two hours for him to die?"
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer expressed concern over how long the procedure took and ordered the state's Department of Corrections to conduct a full review, but said justice had been done and that the execution was lawful.
"One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer," the Republican governor said. "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."
Wood, 55, was sentenced to death in 1991 for the August 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father Eugene Dietz, in Tucson.
Charles Ryan, director of Arizona's Department of Corrections, said protocol was followed and that the execution was monitored by a team of licensed medical professionals. But state officials offered no immediate explanation for why the procedure dragged out so long.
The Pima County Medical Examiner will conduct an independent autopsy, he said, and a toxicology study was requested.
Wood had been one of six death row prisoners who sued Arizona last month arguing that secrecy surrounding the drugs used in other botched executions in Ohio and Oklahoma violated their rights. But he exhausted his appeals on Wednesday when the Arizona Supreme Court lifted a hold after reviewing a last-minute appeal.
Anti-death penalty campaigners expressed horror over the drawn-out death. Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project, said Arizona had broken constitutional rights, and the bounds of basic decency.
"It's time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure," she said.
Arizona officials said they were using the same sedative that was used in Oklahoma, midazolam, together with a second drug, hydromorphone, a combination that has been used previously in Ohio. Similar problems were reported in the execution in Ohio in January of Dennis McGuire, using the same two drugs.
Capital punishment by lethal injection has been thrown into turmoil as the supplies of traditionally used barbiturates have dried up, in part because companies are unwilling to manufacture and sell them for this purpose. Arizona officials, like those in Oklahoma and several other states, have turned to new drug combinations and refused to reveal the manufacturers, saying this would lead them to stop providing the drugs.
Reuters, New York Times, Los Angeles Times