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Execution policy on trial in Arizona as journalists seek transparency

Execution policy on trial in Arizona as journalists seek transparency


On July 23, 2014, Joseph Rudolph Wood was supposed to be executed in a quick and painless way—injected once with 50mg of midazolam and 50mg of hydromorphone. Instead, he suffered through a lethal injection protocol that lasted 117 minutes, snorting and gasping for air as he was injected with 15 doses of the drugs.

Following news of Wood’s botched execution, multiple news organizations — including the Guardian and Associated Press — filed a lawsuit to make Arizona’s execution protocol more transparent. According to the lawsuit, the public is entitled to information about death penalty protocol under the First Amendment. Absent some modicum of transparency, it “cannot meaningfully debate the propriety of lethal injection executions if it is denied access to this essential information about how individuals are being put to death by the state.” On Tuesday, the publications finally got their day in court, arguing that the state must reveal the source of its lethal injection drugs and identify executioners’ qualifications.

The trial is the latest in a series of efforts by journalists to understand how states are procuring and administering their lethal injection drugs, following a spate of botched executions.

Drugs approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) were previously manufactured in Europe and sold to the U.S., but international suppliers have stopped providing them for moral reasons in recent years. As a result, states are scrambling to find alternative suppliers and drugs (like the anesthetic midazolam), even turning to unregulated compounding pharmacies that aren’t approved by the FDA. Pharmacists and former state attorneys general have argued that midazolam in particular is not an adequate substance to render a person unconscious, yet states are still using it as a sedative in the lethal injection process. Doctors and nurses are also prevented from participating in death penalty procedures by the country’s largest medical associations.

In Arizona, it was clear that Wood’s executioners lacked expertise and relied on a drug that doesn’t have the backing of the medical community.

“The department said one dose of this drug combination would be enough to kill a prisoner, and it was not enough,” his attorney, Dale Baich, said in 2014. “Under the Arizona protocol, if the prisoner remains conscious, a backup set of drugs can be administered, but there’s nothing in the protocol that permits fourteen additional doses to be administered when the prisoner is unconscious.”

Changes have been made to Arizona’s execution method since Wood’s death. Via camera, reporters are now allowed to watch prisoners as they enter the execution room, in addition to watching as catheters are attached to people’s bodies. A camera must also be fixated on the executioners’ control board. The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC) is now supposed to use thiopental or pentobarbital, both of which the state has difficulty procuring. But ADOC policy authorizes its director to alter the lethal injection policy, and cameras can be turned off “in the event of a legitimate penological objective.”

Tuesday’s trial indicates that Arizona’s death penalty is still shrouded in secrecy. It is now up to a judge to decide if the public has a right to know more about the process.