When Arizona announced that it would use midazolam in combination with the narcotic hydromorphone, as Oklahoma did in a controversial execution, to execute double-murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood, Wood's attorneys fought to the U.S. Supreme Court. The execution took place Wednesday. Reporter Michael Kiefer was a news-media witness. What follows is his account of what he saw.
The first glimpse was from above, framed by two closed-circuit TVs.
Joseph Rudolph Wood was strapped to a gurney in an orange jumpsuit as prison medical staff prepared to set intravenous lines in his arms.
It was 1:30 in the afternoon at Housing Unit 9, the small, one-story, free-standing stucco building where executions are carried out at the Arizona Prison Complex-Florence. The viewing room is 15 feet by 12 feet, painted in calming tones of blue, with three rows of risers that climb from the big window that looks into the lethal-injection chamber in front to the bay windows of the gas chamber behind.
Federal law requires that witnesses to executions see every phase, including the setting of IV lines. But in Arizona, it's done on camera.
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Wood's eyes flitted back and forth, and his eyebrows arched as men in scrubs, their faces out of camera range, fussed with blood-pressure cuffs and trays of IV needles. The lines went in easily. They don't usually; Arizona is one of three states that will surgically cut a catheter into a condemned man's groin after failing to find veins in the arms or hands, a process used in nine of the past 14 executions.
Then, the curtains opened.
Wood turned his head and looked curiously at the 20 or so witnesses in the room. He found the family of his victims, the sisters and brother-in-law of Debra Dietz, the estranged girlfriend he killed, along with her father, Eugene, in Tucson in 1989. He grinned, seemed to laugh at them and jerked his head back to look at the ceiling.
Next to me, Wood's chaplain, a priest in a collar, counted beads on a rosary. His lips moved silently in prayer. Three of Wood's attorneys sat behind him.
Wood pronounced his last words: There was no apology to the family, only a statement about how he had found Jesus, who he hoped would forgive them all.
"Are those your last words?" the warden asked.
It was 1:54. The drugs had already begun to flow through the IVs. The execution had begun.
This was the fifth execution I've witnessed. They don't look like much. The condemned person usually wears an expression of dumbfounded embarrassment and stares absurdly at the ceiling. Then, his eyes close slowly and he stops moving, except for a few chest-raising breaths that slow and then stop. The face slackens, the mouth gapes. It's usually over in 10 or 11 minutes.
Wood's execution was no different — at first. Maybe he was smiling, but just slightly. He took a few gulps of air and closed his eyes.
The priest stopped praying and watched.
Four minutes into the procedure, the doctor appeared on the other side of the window. He checked Wood's eyes and pulse and then said over the microphone, "It is confirmed that he is sedated."
There had been concern about the drugs used in this execution, a cocktail of the Valium-like midazolam and a narcotic called hydromorphone. Witnesses to an execution in Florida, where the drug was used last October, noted that it seemed to take longer than usual. An Ohio execution in January took more than 20 minutes and death-penalty attorneys claimed that was too long.
Wood's attorneys filed motions in state and federal courts expressing concerns over the drugs and the Arizona Department of Corrections' refusal to provide information about the specific batches of the drugs that it had obtained.
The execution was stayed twice. The first stay was lifted Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court. A second stay was imposed Wednesday morning, which pushed the execution back from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Arizona Supreme Court lifted it before noon Wednesday.
At the start of Wood's execution, none of those concerns seemed warranted.
Then at 2:05, Wood's mouth opened. Three minutes later it opened again, and his chest moved as if he had burped. Then two minutes again, and again, the mouth open wider and wider. Then it didn't stop.
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He gulped like a fish on land. The movement was like a piston: The mouth opened, the chest rose, the stomach convulsed. And when the doctor came in to check on his consciousness and turned on the microphone to announce that Wood was still sedated, we could hear the sound he was making: a snoring, sucking, similar to when a swimming-pool filter starts taking in air, a louder noise than I can imitate, though I have tried.
It was death by apnea. And it went on for an hour and a half. I made a pencil stroke on a pad of paper, each time his mouth opened, and ticked off more than 640, which was not all of them, because the doctor came in at least four times and blocked my view.
I turned to my friend Troy Hayden, the anchor and reporter from Fox 10 News, who was sitting next to me. Troy and I witnessed another execution together in 2007, and he had seen one before that, so he also knows what it looks like.
"I don't think he's going to die," I said.
A moment later, Troy turned to me and whispered, "I think you're right."
The priest laid a crucifix at the end of the rosary on the bench and stared into the face of Jesus.
I wondered if there were a Plan B, some other dose of drugs, something to speed up the death. Or someone to stop it.
In fact, as Wood was drowning in air, two of his attorneys left the room. I later learned they had filed motions to try to get the execution stopped.
Finally, Wood started to gasp less frequently. Once, twice, minutes apart; he stopped at 3:36. At 3:40 and 3:48, the doctor examined him and pronounced him "still sedated."
A minute later, Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan appeared in the window next to Wood's gurney, like some kind of narrator. It was like a scene featuring the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's play, "Our Town." Or maybe like Rod Serling in "Twilight Zone."
The execution had been completed, he said. The curtains closed. The witnesses filed out.
One of Wood's lawyers said, "The experiment failed."