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2014 Is Already the Worst Year in the History of Lethal Injection

Another day, another problematic execution

On Wednesday afternoon, a prisoner named Joseph Rudolph Wood III suffered what was one of the longest executions in U.S. history. Executioners in Arizona began pumping the lethal drugs into Wood’s veins at 1:57 p.m. His death was not pronounced until nearly two hours later at 3:49 p.m. According to Michael Kiefer, a reporter with the Arizona Republic who witnessed the execution, Wood gasped 660 times before he died. A witness from the attorney general’s office said he was merely snoring, but another attending reporter used what has become, in descriptions of botched executions, a familiar metaphor, saying Wood looked “like a fish on shore gulping for air."

Wood was convicted in 1989 of double murder. His execution was the fourth problematic execution so far in 2014, making it already the worst year in the 37-year history of lethal injection. While previous years have seen several executions where states struggled to establish IV access, all of this year's problematic executions have had issues after the drugs began to flow. First on January 9, Oklahoma executed Michael Wilson using three drugs, including a paralyzing agent. “I feel my whole body burning,” Wilson said out loud, shortly after the executioners began pushing the drugs into his arm.

A week later, on January 16, Ohio executed Dennis McGuire using a new and untested two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone—the same drug combination that Arizona would use to kill Wood. McGuire’s execution, at 25 minutes, was the longest in Ohio’s recent history—and witnesses said he gasped several times throughout. 

In April, Oklahoma carried out what may have been the worst lethal injection in U.S. history: Executioners pushed an IV catheter straight through a vein in Clayton Lockett’s groin, so that the drugs filled his tissue and not his bloodstream. As Lockett writhed and grimaced, the executioners closed the curtains and tried to call off the execution—but it was too late, and he eventually died of a heart attack.

Now there’s Wood in Arizona. Arizona chose to become just the second state to use the same two drugs that Ohio used for McGuire, despite the apparent problems with that execution. A full picture of Wood's death has not yet emerged, but the execution dragged on so long that Wood’s lawyers were able to file an appeal in U.S. district court during the procedure. The Arizona Department of Corrections insists nothing went wrong with Wood’s execution. Given the properties of the drugs that were used, it’s less likely that Wood suffered pain than Wilson or Lockett, both of whom were given a paralyzing drug. But lethal injections are supposed to be quick procedures, lasting no more than 10 or 15 minutes. If you start counting from when the drugs began to flow (as opposed to when the executioners first attempt to establish IV access), then Wood’s execution may have been the slowest in U.S. history.

What has made 2014 such a problematic year for capital punishment so far? Due to chronic drug shortages, states have turned to drugs that have never been used before in executions. The drug midazolam, for instance, had never been used in a lethal injection before last fall. It has now been used in twelve executions and four have been deemed problematic, including those of McGuire, Lockett, and Wood.

States turned to midazolam after they ran out of the more powerful barbiturate drugs they had traditionally used as the first drug in a three-drug protocol. This was the result, in part, of a campaign by anti-death-penalty activists to persuade European pharmaceutical companies to stop selling execution drugs to U.S. states. Frustrated, states began purchasing new drugs from compounding pharmacies in the U.S., which are not regulated by the FDA. What’s more, the states passed secrecy laws to prevent any further public disclosure of the sources of their drugs.

Lawyers for death-row inmates have tried to argue that their clients are entitled to know the sources, so they can ensure the integrity of the drugs. The states, meanwhile, have assured courts that their new drugs will be effective. Despite repeated problematic executions, the inmates' arguments did not gain much traction in federal courts until Monday. That’s when the Ninth Circuit Court stayed Wood’s execution until Arizona revealed the sources of the drugs it would use to kill him. It was the first time a U.S. circuit court ruled against a state secrecy statute, but a day later the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the stay.

Back in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that lethal injection did not violate the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. It may have thought that that would be its final word on the subject. But now it finds itself embroiled in a lethal-injection controversy again—and given the way things are going, it won’t be long before it is again.