Arizona Slowly Suffocates Man to Death

In the next in a series of gruesome botched executions in the US, Arizona managed to take nearly 2 hours to kill convicted murderer Joesph Wood. 

The drugs used were midazolam and hydromorphone, the same combination used by Ohio in January to kill Dennis McGuire, an agonizing process that took nearly 1/2 hour. Harvard anesthesiologist David Waisel had warned against this protocol, saying that the combination could leave the victim feeling like he was suffocating. Some involved in the AZ execution describe the drug combination as "experimental," but given the OH experience, it would seem more accurate to say that AZ chose to try a drug combination that had already been shown not to work. This isn't experimentation—it is a choice to flirt with torture.

Wood gasped for breath for an hour and 40 minutes. Though Wood did not speak or otherwise struggle, it is difficult to say for certain whether he experienced the agony of his slow suffocation, or whether he was too deeply sedated to feel what is arguably the most cruel death that can be inflicted upon a human being. After watching Wood gasp for breath for an hour, his lawyers submitted a final energency appeal to halt the process, which was denied by U.S. District Judge Neil Wake. (Correction: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy had earlier referred a last-minute appeal for a stay to the full US Supreme Court, which denied the request on Wednesday.)

Lawyers got a court order for the local medical examiner to collect multiple blood and tissue samples: drug levels might shed light on Wood's depth of sedation. However, different patients react differently to the same dose of a drug--these tests might not settle the question. The order specified that the samples be taken before 11:00 p.m., but the medical examiner initially refused to comply. Apparently the samples were to be drawn this morning

We know capital punishment is unjust. (Here's a quick summary of why.) Lethal injection, intended to give a clinical objectivity and aesthetic cleanness to a morally dirty business, has proven to be disastrous. Part of the problem is medical incompetence: Clayton Lockett's execution went awry when personnel could not establish a secure IV line. Inappropriate drug choice is a form of medical incompetence, too. This situation is unlikely to improve, especially since trained medical professionals are unable to participate and drug companies refuse to have their medications abused in this way.

And even if there's no shame about injustice in places where capital punishment is still practiced, shouldn't there at least be a degree of embarrassment that they can't even manage to do it competently?

And I'll take either reason—shame or embarrassment—as an occasion to put an end to capital punishment in the US. Now.

UPDATE: A noteworthy comment from US Ninth Circuit Court Chief Judge Alex Kozinski: 

Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and beautiful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moments....But executions are, in fact, brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should we. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.

(Previous discussion of capital punishment cases and drugs here and here.)

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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