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Lawyer for Arizona death row inmates expresses concerns over lethal injection drugs

Death Penalty Arizona
Posted at 9:45 PM, Apr 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-06 16:54:35-04

PHOENIX — After a seven-year hiatus, the Arizona State Attorney General is hoping to start executing death row inmates once again.

Last week, Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced that his office was seeking warrants to execute two convicted killers who were sentenced to death and have now exhausted all of their appeals.

While Brnovich is confident the state is ready to proceed, those against the death penalty say there has been too much secrecy and controversy surrounding the lethal injection drugs used to carry out these executions.

All executions were halted by a State Supreme Court Judge in 2014, after what lawyers call the "botched" execution of death row prisoner Joseph Wood.

Wood was convicted of the murders of his estranged girlfriend and her father and sentenced to die in 1989. During his execution, a process that should have lasted for 10 minutes dragged on for an excruciating 157 minutes, according to witnesses.

Wood's attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Dale Baich, and journalist Michael Kiefer witnessed this execution.

"He made his last statement and then the warden stepped out of the room. I remember watching Mr. Wood as he was laying there. Slowly his eyes began to close, his breathing became more shallow and I noticed the color leaving his face," said Baich. He said Wood appeared to be still for a few minutes.

"And then all of a sudden, his mouth opened very wide. He bucked up against the straps. His head tilted back, and it was a huge gulp, he was struggling to breathe," said Baich.

Kiefer, who has covered 13 executions in Arizona described what he saw as "barbaric."

"I think everybody sort of jumped in the room when it happened. I took my notepad and I started writing how many times he did that," said Kiefer.

"By the time they pronounced him dead, I had 640 cross hatches on my notebook, as to how many times I had watched him convulse like that," he added.

After almost two hours and 15 injections of the lethal drug combination, Wood finally died.

Brnovich said he would not call the execution of Joseph Wood "botched."

"At the end of the day, the medical examiner and other experts said that killer was unconscious the whole time. There's no evidence that person suffered in any way," said Brnovich in an interview with ABC15 last week.

Baich questioned the Attorney General's statement, adding that he had not been there to personally witness Wood's death.

"There is no medical examiner's report or autopsy report that can tell if you if a person suffered or not," added Baich.

The chart below breaks down the number of executions in Arizona from 1992 until 2014, and the method used.

While Brnovich said, "the ultimate crime deserved the ultimate punishment," those against the death penalty say Wood's execution was not unique.

They cited multiple executions in other states where the lethal injection drugs either took too long to kill the prisoners, did not do what they were supposed to do by acting swiftly, and in some cases caused the inmates to suffer greatly.

According to an annual report published by the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy and research group, states are "conducting executions with drug and drug combinations that have never been tried before," and they're doing it "behind an expanding veil of secrecy laws that shield the execution process from public scrutiny."

Baich said there should be transparency surrounding the execution process.

"What I have seen in Arizona from 2010 through 2014 is consistently the state not following the rules, not following the protocol and in the case of Joseph Wood, using an experimental drug combination that was going to fail. We knew that. We told the state that, yet they forged ahead, and it was really troubling to watch that execution and what happened to Joe Wood," said Baich.

The state will no longer be using the drug combination administered to Joseph Wood, instead, the state will be using a drug called Pentobarbital. In a letter from Brnovich to Governor Doug Ducey, Brnovich writes, "The Attorney General's office has found a lawful supplier of Pentobarbital that can make the drug available to our state."

Baich said they had many concerns about Pentobarbital as well, especially after seeing it used in executions in other states over the last year.

"The prisoners experienced Pulmonary Edema, which means they have the sensation that they're drowning, so we're very concerned about that," said Baich.

He called it a constitutional violation to subject a person to cruel and unusual punishment, and he also questioned where the state was obtaining the drug from, as there was a nationwide shortage of the drug and many pharmaceutical companies would not sell the drugs to the state department of corrections to be used in executions.

ABC15 asked Brnovich where the state had obtained the drug.

"Well, that is confidential, it's private. Private by statute," said Brnovich. "I think what we've seen over the last few decades is opponents of the death penalty have waged a guerilla war."

To protect drug companies, compounding pharmacists, and executioner physicians from harassment, states are not required to disclose this information, but many attorneys who have clients on death row and anti-death penalty activists saw a big problem with that.

"If the state of Arizona wants to take another citizen's life, it should be transparent as to where it got the drugs, who is carrying out the execution, what qualifications that person has, and what kind of access people will have to the client," said Baich.

For Brnovich though, this was all about carrying out justice on behalf of those the killers had hurt.

"At the end of the day, what these killers get with the lethal injection is much better than anything they did to the victims and their families," said Brnovich.

There have been some wins for those fighting for transparency.

According to a court settlement, the state will now have to leave microphones turned on in the execution chambers during the execution.

Baich said witnesses would also now see the prisoner brought in and strapped down. They would also see the lethal injection lines being inserted into the prisoner and the drugs being pushed into their bodies.

ABC15 has reached out to the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry for information on future executions in Arizona.

The agency sent us this statement:

The Department remains prepared to carry out these legally imposed sentences in fulfillment of its statutory obligations under A.R.S. § 13-757. Pentobarbital has been administered lawfully and successfully for many years throughout the State and Federal correctional systems to ensure that these legally imposed sentences were carried out.