Botched Ariz. Execution Renews Unease Over Lethal Injections

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Activists against the death penalty are seizing on a botched execution in Arizona Wednesday. Witnesses say that death row inmate Joseph Rudolph Wood gasped for air, taking nearly two hours to die by lethal injection.


Arizona's governor has ordered a review of yesterday's execution of convicted murderer Joseph Wood. Opponents of the death penalty call it another botched execution by lethal injection. In a few minutes, we'll explore some of the legal questions this latest case raises. But first, NPR's Martin Kaste reports on whether it could lead to a change in public opinion about capital punishment.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Joe Wood's execution yesterday took a lot longer than anyone expected. Troy Hayden is a TV reporter. He was one of the witnesses.

TROY HAYDEN: Joe Wood is dead, but it took him two hours today. And to watch a man lay there for 1 hour and 40 minutes, gulping air. I can liken to - if you catch a fish and throw it on the shore - the way the fish opens and closes its mouth.

KASTE: Death penalty opponents were quick to condemn yesterday's execution. Diann Rust-Tierney is the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

DIANN RUST-TIERNEY: First of all, let me say that what happened was predictable and avoidable. They used the same drugs that resulted in a disastrous execution in Ohio. And what we're seeing is a pattern of secrecy and a lack of accountability. That's sort of become the norm in states that are executing prisoners still.

KASTE: States are using novel combinations of drugs for their lethal injections. Some would say, they're experimenting with them. That's because they're having a hard time getting supplies of more tried-and-true execution drugs. The companies that make those have come under pressure from anti-death penalty campaigners, especially in Europe. Rust-Tierney says that should be a reality check for American policymakers.

RUST-TIERNEY: They need to ask themselves, why is it that the rest of the world is so opposed to what is going on here - that they take the steps of saying, we will forbid our companies from allowing these drugs to be used for this purpose?

KASTE: But supporters of the death penalty are pushing back against this notion that the recent problems with lethal injections should undermine capital punishment itself. And they even question the assumption that yesterday's execution was a botch. Jeannie Brown also witnessed that execution.

JEANNIE BROWN: No, he wasn't suffering. He was sleeping. He was sleeping. A couple times when the microphone came, you could hear him snoring.

KASTE: Brown is the sister and daughter to the two people who were murdered by Wood, back in 1989. She was upset at the other witnesses' distress over Wood's execution.

BROWN: So everybody here, from what I heard, said it was excruciating. You don't know what excruciating is. What's excruciating is seeing your dad lying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister lying there in a pool of blood. That's excruciating.

KASTE: Still, yesterday's procedure clearly did not go as expected. And it provides another example for those who argue that lethal injections are unreliable. But since most Americans support capital punishment, some are now talking about returning to older methods. Federal appeals court judge, Alex Kozinski, clearly thinks that's the way to go. When Joe Wood sued to find out the details about the drugs that would be used to kill him Judge Kozinski wrote an opinion that called the effort to execute people peacefully with drugs misguided. He wrote quote, "if we as a society cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn't be carrying out executions at all." Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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