The controversy engulfing the death penalty in the United States escalated on Wednesday when the state of Arizona took almost two hours to kill a prisoner using an experimental concoction of drugs whose provenance it had insisted on keeping secret.
Joseph Wood took an hour and 58 minutes to die after he was injected with a relatively untested combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone. The procedure took so long that his lawyers had time to file an emergency court motion in an attempt to have it stopped. For more than an hour, he was seen to be “gasping and snorting”, according to the court filing.
The attempt to execute Wood had begun at 1.52pm, with sedation of the prisoner confirmed five minutes later. The office of the Arizona attorney general, Tom Horne, announced at 3.49pm local time that Wood was dead.
According to the emergency motion, Wood was seen to be still breathing at 2.02pm, and the next minute his mouth moved. “He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour,” his lawyers said. When the officials in charge of the execution checked the prisoner at 3.02pm – an hour and 10 minutes after the procedure began – he was confirmed still to be alive.
One eyewitness, Michael Kiefer of Arizona Republic, counted the prisoner gasping 660 times. Another witness, reporter Troy Hayden, told the same paper that it had been "very disturbing to watch ... like a fish on shore gulping for air."