Poorly executed: 'The experiment failed,' halting executions in Arizona
A botched execution left Joseph Wood gasping for nearly 2 hours as he was given 15 lethal doses
Executions are absurd but solemn rituals.
In Arizona, they are carried out at what is left of the old central unit in Florence, in a small building called Housing Unit 9 inside the prison walls. And, by law, they are attended by witnesses to make sure that justice is served.
Who are the witnesses? The condemned person can invite guests, and occasionally family members accept invitations. But usually, the dead man’s witnesses are his lawyers and clergy.
The victims’ families and friends may often attend, and their reactions afterward range from rage to acceptance to horror to a still-unresolved aching.
Government officials will often come to prove they are tough on crime. As then-Attorney General Terry Goddard told me at Robert Comer’s execution in 2007, “If I’m supposed to support this, I should see what it looks like.”
And then there are the journalists — five according to the protocol, one each from print, wire, TV and radio, plus one from the jurisdiction where the murder took place.
On July 23, 2014, I witnessed my fifth and final execution as a reporter for The Arizona Republic. It left a mark. And it went so wrong that it stopped executions in the state for eight years.
Joseph Wood killed two people. In 1989, his girlfriend, Debra Dietz, had broken up with him, and he couldn’t take it. He stalked her and threatened her, and one day he showed up at the car repair shop in Tucson where she and several members of her family worked.
Wood walked right up to Debra’s father, Eugene, and shot him dead. Eugene’s elderly brother tussled with Wood as Debra took off running. But Wood broke free and chased her down and shot her right in front of her sister and brother-in-law. Wood was captured after a shoot-out with police in which he was wounded.
It was a Tucson case, and as such, not really newsworthy to a Phoenix newspaper. I was there for a different reason.
Unable to obtain the drugs thiopental or pentobarbital, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-entry (ADCRR) had decided to use a new killer formula mixing midazolam and hydromorphone.
Midazolam is not an anesthetic, but is instead a muscle relaxant and sedative. You might get it before a colonoscopy, and it doesn’t render you entirely insensate — you just don’t remember much afterward. Hydromorphone, a high-strength opioid, is a pain reliever stronger than morphine. The combination had already been used in two other executions nationwide, but with questionable results.
In a 2013 Florida execution using midazolam and hydromorphone, witnesses felt the deceased had remained conscious for a long time. Then, in January 2014, an Ohio prisoner gasped and convulsed for more than 10 minutes and took twice that amount of time to die.
And midazolam was also involved in a different drug combination in a disastrous Oklahoma execution three months earlier, though that botch may have had more to do with a slipped catheter than the choice of drugs. The condemned person seemed to lose consciousness, but then suddenly came to, writhed in pain, and uttered obscenities about the drugs not working before he died of a heart attack.
Accordingly, Wood’s attorneys, including Dale Baich of the Federal Defender’s Office, had taken ADCRR to court over concerns with midazolam. The execution had been delayed twice, including that morning. But the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona Supreme Court lifted all stays and ruled the execution could go forward.
I showed up early at the prison and, after clearing the various security screenings, was led to a classroom inside the prison walls to meet up with the other journalists.
After a long wait as the state high court pondered its ruling, we were led through the empty yards — the prison is put on lockdown on execution days — to Housing Unit 9. The other groups of witnesses were led in, segregated and separately.
Inside the building is a tiny amphitheater with riser rows of backless benches separated by aisles to keep the witnesses apart. In front is a long window into the execution chamber, curtains closed.
Troy Hayden from Fox10 was sitting next to me. We first met at the Jeffrey Landrigan execution in 2010 and have remained friends since. Dale was sitting on the other side of the aisle in Wood’s viewing section, and in front of him were two other attorneys and Ed Sheffer, a deacon from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson who ministers to people on death row and has also become a friend.
At 1:30 p.m., the two TV screens above the window came on suddenly. There was Wood blinking up at the camera above him, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and strapped to a gurney. Men in scrubs prepared trays of needles and blood pressure cuffs, their faces obscured by medical masks and head coverings. For once, the catheters went in easily, though one of Wood’s lawyers later remarked that she saw a lot of blood on the floor beneath him.
In nine of 14 executions to that point, the IV teams had failed to get a line into an arm or hand and had resorted to a surgical cutdown to insert a line in the femoral vein in the prisoner’s groin.
The curtains opened to show Wood lying there with his head to the left, so that when he turned to look into the viewing room, the first people he saw were the relatives of his victims. He let out a “wouldn’t-you-know-it” kind of laugh — though we couldn’t hear it because the microphone was turned off — then gazed back at the ceiling.
Deacon Ed, as Sheffer is known, was silently praying as he counted on his rosary. Wood uttered his unmemorable last words, and instead of asking forgiveness from his victims, he instead asked for it from Jesus, who he hoped would forgive us all.
“Are those your last words?” the warden asked.
The warden announced that the execution had begun, though it was hard to tell. The lines in the condemned man’s veins run from a small room out of sight, where executioners inject the death chemicals through a control panel.
At first, the execution looked like most others. Maybe the concern over the drugs had been mistaken. Wood gulped in air and then closed his eyes and seemed to go to sleep. Four minutes in, an executioner — presumably a doctor (his name kept secret) —checked Wood’s eyelids, turned on a microphone and said that Wood was “sedated.”
Twelve minutes into the execution, everyone in the witness chamber jumped when Wood convulsed and exhaled forcefully, his lips pursed as if blowing smoke rings. Then he did it again. And again. I started making hash marks on my notebook, counting each one. Each time the executioner entered the chamber to check if Wood was conscious, he would turn on the microphone to tell us he was still sedated. But in the background, we could hear a loud sucking noise each time Wood gasped for air.
I turned to Troy Hayden and said, “I don’t think he’s going to die.”
He whispered back, “I think you’re right.”
Deacon Ed studied the face of Jesus on the crucifix attached to his rosary.
The correctional officers in the room eyed each other nervously. This was not supposed to happen — even if it had been predicted.
Dale handed a note to one of Wood’s other lawyers that read, “Call Robin, Jennifer, tell (them) what’s going on. This has been going on for an hour.” He said, “Go now.”
The lawyer rushed from the viewing room and was stopped by a correctional officer, whom she asked for a phone. You have to leave your phone behind when you enter the prison. He refused, but escorted her to the prison administration office, where she called the Federal Defender’s Office.
Robin Konrad, one of the attorneys who worked with Dale, drafted a one-page court motion asking that the execution be stopped and then called U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake, who had overseen much of the litigation that established the execution protocols.
Wake quickly had an assistant attorney general on the phone. He and Konrad were not the only people concerned. The assistant AG was on the phone with ADCRR Director Charles Ryan, who was present at the execution and had already called his lawyer.
Wood was still alive, but his heart had slowed. The AG assured Wake that Wood was comatose and not feeling pain. The judge asked if there were any “leads” attached to Wood that would confirm that belief. There were not. The judge was skeptical.
The judge listened to accounts from both sides, but after 25 minutes of discussion, the AG reported to the court that Wood was dead.
Back in Housing Unit 9 we watched as Wood’s breathing slowed and he was finally still. Ryan appeared on the other side of the window next to the body like a Greek chorus in a classical play to say that the “execution was completed at 3:49 p.m.”
We later learned that the executioner had injected Wood with 15 doses of what was supposed to kill him in one. It took nearly two hours. A normal execution took about 10 minutes, 20 at most. I had counted 640 gasps.
The press members were escorted back to the room just outside the prison where they briefed other reporters on what happened during the execution.
The first of the reporters admitted it was her first execution and she didn’t know what to think of it. Troy and I stepped to the microphone, one after the other, and said emphatically that it had gone terribly wrong.
Then Debra Dietz’s sister and brother-in-law took the microphone to take issue with our concerns about the botch and the drugs that caused it.
“I don’t believe he was suffering,” the sister said. “You don’t know what excruciating is. What’s excruciating is seeing your dad laying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister laying there in a pool of blood. This man deserved it.”
Her husband spoke, saying he didn’t care about the drugs.
“Why didn’t we give him a bullet?” he said. “Why didn’t we give him Drano?”
“They deserve to suffer a little bit,” he said. “I saw the life go out of my sister-in-law’s eyes right in front of me.”
After the press conference, my colleague Chris Williams from 12News interviewed me in the press room. I look at that video now and see the strain on my face, my eyes narrowed, my mouth downturned.
Williams is a friend, but I was combative. He led with a question about the bitter family members.
“They lost two family members, and they waited 25 years for someone to do something about it,” I said quickly. “It’s not wrong for them to feel that way.”
“But this is what the court battles were about,” I continued. “‘Is this going to work? Where did (the drugs) come from?’ All those turned out to be valid questions.”
Dale had skipped the post-mortem press conference. As he walked past reporters on the way to his car, one put a microphone in front of him.
“The experiment failed,” he said without turning around.
The litigation begins anew
A day or so later, Ryan, the ADCRR director, held a press conference to say the execution had been successful, unintentionally recreating the scene in “The Green Mile,” where Tom Hanks says that a botched execution by electric chair had been successful because the prisoner was, in fact, dead.
“The record clearly shows the inmate was fully and deeply sedated,” he said in a statement.
Stephanie Grisham, who was the public information officer for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office (and went on to be press secretary for President Donald Trump for a short time), said, “He went to sleep and appeared to be snoring. This was my first execution, and I was surprised at how peaceful it was.”
Gov. Jan Brewer asked that officials look into the execution, but issued her own statement: “One thing is certain, however: Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner. 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.”
Judge Wake ordered ADCRR into court.
The litigation took three years, with two overlapping cases in front of two judges — one by the federal public defenders representing other people on death row, and the other in the name of the media, with The Guardian and The Republic as lead plaintiffs.
One notable moment of the second trial was when Judge G. Murray Snow asked an assistant attorney general if the state had the drugs to carry out executions. The assistant AG said it did. My ears went up.
When court ended for the day, I went right after the state’s lawyer and asked what drugs he was talking about. Thiopental? Pentobarbital? Those were the only drugs allowed because of the other litigation before Wake.
He stuttered and said he was not authorized to say. Later his office filed papers with the court, saying that I had misunderstood.
In subsequent testimony in the court case before Wake, a former ADCRR warden said they had, in fact, obtained pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy — but had not used it.
Meanwhile, lethal injection came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in a case captioned Glossip v. Gross. The case was named for a prisoner on Oklahoma’s death row and it questioned whether lethal injection violated the Eighth Amendment bans against cruel and unusual punishment.
Dale coordinated the case for the plaintiffs, and Konrad, the attorney who had called Wake during Wood’s execution, argued it before the high court. I watched from the court gallery.
Justice Elena Kagan railed about execution chemicals that burned from the inside out. Justice Sonia Sotomayor went after misrepresentations by the solicitor general representing the state of Oklahoma. Justice Stephen Breyer was the most knowledgeable on the subject, Chief Justice John Roberts, the most measured. Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito carped and grunted about anti-death-penalty activists. Justice Clarence Thomas said nothing.
Alito wrote the opinion, ruling that Oklahoma’s execution protocol did not violate the Eighth Amendment. During the oral argument, he asked, “Is it appropriate for the judiciary to countenance what amounts to a guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment . . . ?”
ADCRR and the state finally settled all matters in 2017. The execution protocol was rewritten so that only sodium thiopental or pentobarbital could be used, and in single-drug applications. Witnesses were to see the condemned person walked into the death chamber, strapped to the table, and watch the executioners set the catheters. There was also supposed to be a camera above the console used to inject the drugs from a separate room, to ensure that there were no more 15-dose injections.
But by the time executions resumed eight years later, a lot had changed. There was a new state attorney general, a new corrections director, new defense attorneys defending the condemned and new reporters covering the cases.
There were three executions in 2022, and it was almost like the previous 13 years had never happened.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.