The practice of capital punishment has long been debated in this country. Opponents argue that the death penalty goes against the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. Given recent debacles as a result of the usage of lethal injection to bring about the death, this argument seems even more pronounced. However, on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a stay of execution granted by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the Arizona case of Joseph Rudolph Wood, who had requested more information about the specific drugs that would be used to kill him.
Lethal Injection Under the Microscope
Several questions have arisen in response to the use of lethal injection to execute death row inmates. The first deals with the supply of drugs which have been traditionally used for lethal injection. Up until 2009, most states used a combination of three drugs to carry out the execution. The first drug was an anesthetic, the second was a paralytic agent, and the third stopped the heart.
However, the supply of these traditionally used drugs has dried up as previous suppliers are now unwilling to sell them for executions. As a result of this, the 32 states which currently still practice capital punishment have had to seek alternate drug combinations and suppliers, including drugs that have yet to be approved by the FDA.
Two cases this year have put the practice of lethal injection under the microscope to determine exactly how humane it is. In January, witnesses to the Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire reported disturbing reactions to the usage of the drugs midazolam and hydromorphone (the same drugs to be used in the case of Joseph Wood), including gasping for breath, clenching his fists and arching his back. Even though it took McGuire 25 minutes to die, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction stated that he was unconscious and did not suffer.
Another question regarding lethal injection addresses the qualifications of those performing the procedure. In April, an attempt to execute Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma didn’t turn out the way the state had intended. According to reports, Lockett writhed in agony for several minutes, ultimately dying from an apparent heart failure. Preliminary reports indicated that the mishap occurred as a result of a catheter not being inserted properly. The forensic pathologist for Lockett reported multiple puncture wounds “indicative of failed vascular catheter access.”
The Case of Joseph Rudolph Wood
Given these recent problems, it was no wonder that lawyers for Joseph Rudolph Wood, convicted for the 1989 murders of his estranged girlfriend and her father, argued for a stay of execution based on his First Amendment right of access to public proceedings. More specifically, information on the drugs and qualifications of those administering them. On Saturday, July 19, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the injunction in a 2-1 opinion, writing in the majority that, “we conclude that Wood has presented serious questions going to the merits of his claim.”
This action by the Court of Appeals, coming just four days before the scheduled execution of Wood, was a first. In similar recent cases, several other state and federal courts, including Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, have defended the states’ rights to keep information about the sources of the drugs to be used for lethal injection a secret. Arizona further claims that providing details about the qualifications of those administering the drugs could lead to the disclosure of their identities.
The state of Arizona appealed to the 9th Circuit for a review en banc [a review wherein a case is heard before all judges on a bench as opposed to a panel selected by the bench] but the Court of Appeals refused the appeal. Unwilling to concede, the state took the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court who lifted the injunction on Tuesday. The execution of Wood by lethal injection is scheduled for Wednesday, July 23.
A Victory for Lethal Injection?
Not exactly. While discussion appears to be over as far as Joseph Wood is concerned, the debate over lethal injection continues to rage on. In an interesting response to the appeal to rehear the case en banc, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski stated that even though he believed the state of Arizona should ultimately prevail, the process of lethal injection was “misguided.”
Referring to the fact that the second drug traditionally administered in the lethal injection process produces a paralytic effect, Kozinski wrote, “Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful–like something any one of us might experience in our final moments . . . But executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events . . . If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”
Kozinski went on to say that he believed the country should return to more “foolproof” methods of execution, such as the firing squad. “If we, as a society, cannot stomach the splatter from an execution carried out by firing squad, then we shouldn’t be carrying out executions at all.”