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An Odd Motion, Ariz.'s Botched Execution, and the Supreme Court

By William Peacock, Esq. on July 28, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A motion for relief filed halfway through an execution. Why have you never heard of such things? It's probably because most executions don't last two hours -- lethal injections typically take about 10 minutes.

More interesting than the motion itself was the awkward conference call where the judge heard both sides and seemed close to intervening before convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood was pronounced dead in Arizona. As the call ended, the judge noted that this only delays the issue, and that this would have consequences for other plaintiffs.

Indeed. And though the legal arguments here were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, one wonders how long it'll be before the issue finally (and perhaps inevitably) climbs its way back onto the docket.

A Conference Call

"He has been gasping, snorting, and unable to breathe and not dying," lawyer Robin C. Konrad told U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake over the phone during last Wednesday's execution, according to a transcript posted online by the National Journal. "And we're asking -- our motion asks for you to issue an emergency stay and order the Department of Corrections to start lifesaving techniques."

After an attorney for the state was added to the call, the parties debated whether Wood could feel pain.

"I am told that Mr. Wood is effectively brain dead and that this is the type of reaction that one gets if they were taken off of life support. The brain stem is working but there's no brain activity," attorney Jeffrey A. Zick said.

The judge responded: "Do you have the leads connected to determine his brain state?"

Zick said he didn't think so.

"Well if there are not monitors connected with him, if it's just a visual observation, that is very concerning as not being adequate," the judge said.

Shortly thereafter, Wood's heart rate began to slow. After the judge noted that he needed to make a decision within the next few minutes, Zick relayed the execution team's message that it was too late to change course. A few moments later, Wood was pronounced dead, nearly two hours after the ordeal began.

Botched or Not?

While to many people, a two-hour execution sounds botched, the state maintains that everything went according to plan. Experts told The Associated Press that the two drugs used -- a painkiller and a sedative -- would behave exactly as described and wouldn't cause a prompt death. An execution carried out in Ohio earlier this year, using the same drugs, lasted more than 30 minutes.

Even still, Arizona has suspended executions while it reviews the novel two-drug combination. Adding a monitor for brain activity might be a good start, but even then, all of the negative publicity from this, the botched execution in Oklahoma, and the prolonged (albeit not as bad as this one) execution in Ohio have brought the death penalty and lethal injection into the national conversation.

The issue in this case, before the execution, was inmates' right of access to information about the drugs being used and the individuals administering them. Many have argued that such information is necessary in light of the series of unusual and/or botched executions in order to ensure that inmates aren't facing cruel and unusual punishment. States have refused to turn the information over, in some cases passing secrecy laws to protect it.

Though Wood's claims were rejected without comment [PDF], and the Court has turned down death drug cases before, the conversation might be getting too loud to ignore any longer.

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