Arizona changing execution drugs after July incident

Joseph Rudolph Wood

Joseph Rudolph Wood

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Arizona officials said Monday they are changing the drugs they use in executions after an inmate in July gasped repeatedly over the course of nearly two hours while being put to death.

According to a letter from Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan to Gov. Jan Brewer, the department no longer will use the combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a pain killer.

Instead, the agency will try to obtain pentobarbital and sodium pentothal, the powerful but obsolete sedative that was used in most lethal injections in Arizona until it became difficult to obtain. If the state cannot obtain those drugs, it will use a three-drug combination that includes midazolam and potassium chloride, among others.

The July 23 execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood, convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her father, called into question the efficacy of the drugs used after it took nearly two hours for Wood to die. He gasped over and over before taking his final breath and was given 15 doses of the drugs.

Wood's attorney, Dale Baich, says the execution was botched.

But results from an independent investigation conducted by a group of former corrections directors and experts found no protocols were broken, that the state properly trained its execution team, and that Wood was injected properly but did not react to the drugs as expected.

The three-member team recommended the changes to the drugs used. The results were released Monday.

"The report is clear that the execution of inmate Wood was handled in accordance with all department procedures, which, as the report states, either meet or exceed national standards," Ryan said in a statement. "It was done appropriately and with the utmost professionalism."

Baich says he has not received a copy of the report but would review it as soon as it became available.

The state has put on hold all executions pending the outcome of a lawsuit stemming from Wood's execution.

The lawsuit was filed in June on behalf of Wood and other death-row inmates. It claims the inmates have a First Amendment right to know about specific execution protocols such as the types of drugs used in lethal injections and the companies that supply them.

The independent investigation reviewed drug combinations and other execution protocols of several other states, including Ohio, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri.

The investigators compared Wood's execution with that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. The same sedative was used in both, but Oklahoma officials have said the catheters were improperly placed on Lockett, restricting the drugs' flow.

Lockett writhed, mumbled and lifted his head on the gurney during the 43 minutes it took him to die.

A federal judge is expected to rule Monday on whether that drug combination is constitutional.

Wood did not feel pain, the investigation found. The lead doctor said he performed seven consciousness tests and found Wood was unresponsive. The doctor said he used a pin to prick Wood but got no response.

"The process and the implementation of the protocol was not 'botched' as has been described in the Lockett execution," the investigators wrote.

Pima County Medical Examiner Gregory Hess told investigators it's possible Wood was brain dead long before he died, and that gasps and snorting are "normal bodily responses to dying," according to the report. The autopsy findings in Wood's death have not been publicly released.