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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.)

About the Author

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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It's a dsigrace that executives still allow this to happen and that courts refuse to acknowledge that this is cruel and unusual.

The same problems which afflict death penalty justice permeate our entire criminal justice system.  That said, we should not be killing anyone.

Joseph Woods killed two people in a domestic crisis.  There is no serious doubt that he is the person who shot them. 

Arizona has had the death penalty since before  it became a state (1912), so we can surely agree that the death penalty was no deterrent to Woods.  Inside Florence prison Wods was no threat to anyone in the public, and there is no evidence or even allegation that he s  danger to anyone else inside Florence. 

So perhaps this is some form of retributive justice, developed and executed by the State in the interests of justice? Woods killed his victims in cold blood, with a total of three bullets.  The State of Arizona (acting as our agent) killed Woods by poisoning, with the final crisis taking just under two hours.  He had beenin state csdy since August 1989, and under sentence of death since 1991.  23 years.

How is *any* view of justice  or the protection of society served by this?

I'm against the death penalty, but just wondering something.  I've been reading about the UK debate on the assisted dying bill and about assisted suicide in the Netherlands .... are the methods that doctors use in these cases very different than what is used in executions here?

You may want to speak directly to the victims' loved ones about this execution.  I believe they may have a completely different take.  Woods' cold-blooded (your words) murder of these victims demands justice, and if your reply is that his imprisonment is "justice" enough, again, ask the victims' loved ones.  If you're man enough.  Are you?

I would like to take back my last comment; it was angry and offensive, and I apologize for making it.  Sometimes my mouth outruns my manners and good sense.

Bob Schwartz, overlooking your last few words, there are really good reasons not to allow families to unduly influence penalties meted out to criminals.  Apart from the fact that it is society at large that has to determine what is an appropriate penalty -- and reasonable minds can differ and surely do even among non-family members -- it is not just the fact that some families would be unduly retributive, but some families would be utterly indifferent -- honor killings, for instance -- and some would (in society's view) be unduly forgiving.  Justice requires a certain amount of predictability, but even more so, proportionality, and so ultimately leaving it to an individual family to figure out what justice requires is almost by definition unjust.  I have also noted that the views of families are often dismissed when they would be less harsh than a prosecutor might otherwise be -- so in reality, pointing to the wishes of the family is usually done more to shield the criminal justice system from scrutiny than as a good faith argument in favor of a just result. 

There are some penalties that no one should be allowed to impose no matter how horrible the circumstance.  Otherwise, we are just joining the murderous fray.

We keep trying and failing to find a way to kill people that a) isn't worse than what they did to their victim (or else what's the point of killing them?) b) meets the vague constitutional standard of not being cruel and unusual and c) keeps the median squeamish among us from getting upset.

Hanging, once popular, requires rocket science from the hangman as he calculates a drop that is not too short -- leaving the dying person turning purple in the sight of all -- or too long -- causing decapitation, which is unsalubrious. Headsmen (still employed in Saudi Arabia, I believe) sometimes were imprecise or underpowered -- which is why candidates for beheading were careful to tip the man with the axe to get it right. The  electic chair can set people's heads on fire. The gas chamber is hardly swift, and the firing squad is hardly sure. And now the mystery drug cocktail has started to let us down.

Chief Judge Alec Kozinski of the 9th Circuit made news by suggesting we return to the firing squad, but experience showed that 12 good men and true could miss the side of a barn if the barn happened to be a human being, and an officer often had to provide the coup de grace with a pistol.

The French national razor seems to be the swiftest and surest means of execution ever devised, but eventually it spoiled too many onlookers' dinners and was rertired.

So, to shame and embarrassment add impossibility as a reason to get rid of capitol punishment. Unless one wants to get into morality, but the pro-death lobby makes what it considers to be an equal or better claim to morality summed up by "the s.o.b. deserved what he got." (I think that is supposed to be in Martthew somewhere.)


Bob Swartz,

the reliance on the desires of the victims' families, allowing them to speak in court and so on is a relatively recent phemomonon.  It really flies in the face of the concept that justice is dispensed on behalf of society by the state.  We don't make decisons on punishment for crimes based on the victims' desires or their families' desires.  At least as a civilized society we shouldn't.  We could have a system of justice where we allow families to punish wrongdoers.  Or as in some non-western countries, let the families of the victim have the final say on death.  Those societies and those systems exist.  Not in western democracies, of course, but they exist.  The underlying idea of our system is that a crime against an individual is a crime against the larger society, and for that reason the state steps in and oversees every aspect of the investigation, prosecution and punsihment of the wrongdoer.  Add to that the findings that the evidence is at best mixed that the death penalty provides longterm closure for the families of victims.    It is pure vengence.  Nothing more. 


A large part of the difference is that medical professionals and drug suppliers view euthanasia as an acceptable medical procedure and therefore are willing to participate in the process. A large amont of the recent horror is originally caused by Europe and the medical profession refusing to have any part in our executions. This deprived them of the chemicals that they were used to using as well as the people best able to determine what chemicals at what doses could serve as a replacement.

Another part is probably the difference in health of the person involved. I suspect that it requires less to kill someone already close to death compared to a presumably healthy person. Also, the same amount of pain might be experienced differently by someone who is in enough pain to want to die that by someone who is not already in pain. Finally, the attitude of the person probably makes a difference. The prisoners have not sought this fate, so they will probably fight against it, which will both extend the duration and make it look more gruesome.


Anger happens.  Thank you for being good and strong enough to respond unbidden.

Others have written on the problem of separating personal vengence from society's efforts at justice.  My post was intended only to be a reflection on (part of) the problematic of our curent status with the death penalty.   A general solution to justice when life as been taken is beyond me, though I try to particpate in the debates.


Mark L.




Thanks, Ryan.  I looked further and saw this article, which explains the difficulty in finding certain drugs for executions ...

@ Crystal, Indeed, I'd gone looking for Netherlands euthanasia protocols, specifically to see the rate of botched euthanasias. (Euthanasia is distinct from physician-assisted suicide in that it is performed by a medical professional, while PAS is patient-administered.) A variety of drugs is used for human euthanasia, specified in a Dutch-language formulary, alas. Several different drug classes are referenced by the NEJM piece and here: I also looked to the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines on euthanasia, which can be found here: Use of midazolam is approved for euthanasia of marine mammals in the field. Otherwise, it's not listed as an option, nor is the midazolam/hydromorphone combination. 

Potassium chloride and neuromuscular blocking agents, drugs 2 and 3 of the old 3-drug protocol, are unacceptable in conscious animals, which makes the imperfect anesthesthesia of prisoners especially troubling--in some cases of botched human executions, those in which the victim moved or spoke, it seems clear that people were killed using a protocol disallowed for use in animals because of the possibility of extreme pain. 

If we care about killing people painlessly, it is hard to disagree with Judge Kozinski that gunshot (I'd say directly to the head, either a large-caliber rifle or handgun or a captive-bolt gun) or decapitation by guillotine seems more humane than the status quo. If we're not squeamish about the immorality of capital punishment, we shouldn't be squeamish about the mess.

Europeans have lived happily without the death sentence for quite some time and probably now instinctively think of those who still uphold it as barbarians.

Europeans have lived happily without the death sentence for quite some time

Yeah, that's true, but Americans aren't Europeans, and we don't have European sensibilities, which may be a sad fact, but there it is.

My sense is that Americans, for whatever reason--vengeance, restoration of the balance of justice, morbid interest--find the drama of an execution satisfying, even if they don't want to witness it (though as many as 15 percent of Americans do support public executions). While the number of Americans who support the death penalty is falling, most Americans, including Catholics, still support it.

While I'm on the fence about capital punishment--I find the people who avidly support capital punishment more offensive than the prospect of rare and painless executions of serial child killers--it's hard for me to understand how these executions can be so bollixed up.

Unavailability of drugs isn't really a problem; if the rule that prevents use of veterinary drugs on people were waived, wouldn't this solve the problem if the drugs are manufactured in the U.S.? Moreover, if health care professionals won't start IVs, I think states with the death penalty have an obligation to provide certified licensed executioners who are subject to criminal negligence if the procedure is botched.

"My sense is that Americans, for whatever reason--vengeance, restoration of the balance of justice, morbid interest--find the drama of an execution satisfying, even if they don't want to witness it (though as many as 15 percent of Americans do support public executions)."

Europeans had the juiciest executions accompanied by the most exquisitely imagined forms of vicious torture for many centuries. It is a wonder that we listened to enlightened thinkers such as Albert Camus. The main reason the  US is behind is possibly biblical fundamentalism -- that text in Genesis 9 -- "he who sheds the blood of man, by man let his blood be shed! -- is engraved on the American mind.

The NY Times editorial referenced by Lisa in the original post as a case against the death penalty is quite interesting.  I'd think, though, that the various issues that the Times calls out - inadequate legal representation, mistakes made by police and prosecutors in securing convictions, the racial disparities, the problems with actually executing condemned prisoners, and so on - could be looked upon as solvable problems.  And none of those factors really go to the justice or lack thereof of the death penalty per se.  

The state in which I live, Illinois, still has the death penalty on the books, but it has suspended actually meting out the death penalty for years now, in no small part because Illiinois, if I'm not mistaken, has had more death row prisoners subsequently exonerated than any other state.  Illinois, it seems to me, could be said to be straddling the reality of the death penalty: the death penalty is not unjust, at least conceptually, for certain heinous crimes, but the processes we've constructed for securing convictions, handling appeals and carrying out the death penalty are so riven with problems that we can't in good conscience continue to countenance this broken system.  Perhaps, some day, the broken features will be fixed or replaced or reformed, and then the death penalty would once again be carried out in Illinois.  It's difficult to foresee that happening, though.


This execution represents "...what is arguably the most cruel death that can be inflicted upon a human being." ??

I'd suggest that the slice-and-dice, saline poisoning, quartering, and neonatal abandonment of the abortion techniques in use in America every day -- defended by some (including some of this journal's readership) as some kind of "right" we should at least tolerate -- might displace Joseph Woods' execution for murder.  

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