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First execution since 2014 raises questions of ethics

Posted at 6:52 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 21:52:55-04

PHOENIX — Clarence Dixon, who murdered an Arizona State University student more than 40 years ago, is set to be executed on May 11th.

This will be the first execution in Arizona since a botched attempt in 2014. An execution that left a man gasping for air for nearly two hours, and put a halt to executions in the state.

With a deadline looming, ABC15 looked into the execution process and if it can be done humanely.

We found that Pentobarbital is a drug Arizona has used before for executions. Question is, does the prisoner feel pain once it’s administered, and is the process humane?

“There are a lot of oxymorons here. I mean they are killing someone,” said Michael Kiefer.

Kiefer, a former Arizona Republic reporter, who covered and witnessed lethal injection executions for 16 years there, says it’s a process once that day comes.

“You’re going to be able to see when they insert the lines into the arms and so on, so they’re trying to put in those safeguards to make sure it’s as humane as possible,” he added.

So, who supplies the drug to the Arizona department of corrections, though?

ABC15 is still trying to figure that out, after filing a public records request with the department more than one year ago.

Although Arizona used Pentobarbital from 2011-2013, by 2014 pharmaceutical companies no longer sold the drug to prisons for executions.

“The companies that made it no longer wanted to sell it,” said Kiefer.

2014 is the year Joseph Wood was executed.

“Which I witnessed. He was gasping for breath for nearly two hours and his chest was convulsing and his mouth was looking as if he was blowing smoke rings,” he told ABC15.

A combination of Midazolam and Hydromorphone was used to execute Wood, who was convicted of shooting his estranged girlfriend and her father in 1989.

“They thought one dose was going to be effective and in fact they wound up injecting the man 15 times,” said Kiefer.

Executions in the state stopped after this.

Kiefer showed us public records he obtained, given out by the Department of Corrections, showing the department spent $1,500,000 to buy the basic active ingredient in Pentobarbital, used for pet euthanasia and executions.

It is a purchase that was made six years after Wood's execution.

“It has to be sent to a compounding pharmacy to be put into a solution that can be injected,” said the former Arizona Republic reporter.

Kiefer says this increases room for error.

Pentobarbital will be used in Clarence Dixon's execution and while he says Pentobarbital is legal, the question becomes is the state’s stockpile expired?

Dixon’s attorney, Jennifer Moreno, also expressing similar concerns in a statement:

“Arizona has a history of problematic executions and has not executed anyone since the horrifically mishandled execution of Joseph Wood in 2014. The State has had nearly a year to demonstrate that it will not be carrying out executions with expired drugs but has failed to do so. Under these circumstances, the execution of Mr. Dixon — a severely mentally ill, visually disabled, and physically frail member of the Navajo Nation — is unconscionable.”

Robert Dunham, the Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center expressing another concern to ABC15.

“You have more and more evidence that the lethal injection process subjects prisoners to a torturous death that extends for 10, 15, 20 minutes,” said Dunham.

As the day for Dixon’s execution approaches, the family of his victim tells ABC15 off-camera it’s been a long road to get to this point and a painful one.