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Arizona's Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood's death was totally constitutional. But they're looking into it.
Death penalty protest. (Photo: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty/Flickr)

Death penalty protest. (Photo: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty/Flickr)

Civilian responses to Wednesday's two-hour travesty of an execution in Arizona divide neatly in two. The first line of thinking: The experimental use of undisclosed drug combos in state executions violates the First Amendment (a basic expectation of transparency) and led to gruesomely protracted death-throes that, in turn, violate the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment).

This scenario is precisely why we don't let families sentence the murderer. It's the difference between a civil society and a loose band of feuding tribes.

The second line of thinking is that Joseph Wood, who murdered his ex-girlfriend and her father at close range with a .38 caliber revolver, deserved every one of the 117 minutes it took him to die—“gasping and snorting” “like a fish on land.”

Except, according to the Arizona Attorney General's office and Governor Jan Brewer, there was no anguish.

An hour after Wood's death, the state's response to defense attorneys and journalists from various outlets who witnessed the execution had devolved into a ludicrous playground denialism. Stephanie Grisham, spokeswoman for the AG's office, offers a reassuring tableau: “There was no gasping of air. There was snoring. He just laid there. It was quite peaceful.”

In fact, this serene snooze lasted so long that defense attorneys (who seem to have witnessed a different execution altogether) filed an emergency stay-of-execution. The Guardianreports:

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.

In her first public remarks about the execution, Brewer summarily dismissed testimony from the overwhelming majority of witnesses—that Wood was snorting and contorting and jerking “like a piston.” “One thing is certain,” she said:

Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer. This is in stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims—and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.

Brewer's coda is the traditional conversation-stopper of politicos who have been playing eighth-grade chemistry in the veins of death-row inmatesOh stop fretting over the suffering of a monster. We'll come back to that. Meanwhile, Brewer's flat assertion that Wood “did not suffer” is pure voodoo. One envies her evident powers of clairvoyance, especially since she declined to attend the execution.

Nonetheless, even though nothing unpleasant or unconstitutional happened, Brewer is on the case: “While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process.”

Right. Because internal inquiries by a state's prison apparatus have a clear record of unbiased transparency.

The immediate public outcry, with its rhetoric of torture, prompted scathing remarks from the victims' families.

“This man conducted a horrific murder, and you guys are going, ‘Let's worry about the drugs,'” Richard Brown, Debra Dietz's brother-in-law, told reporters. “Why didn't they give him a bullet, why didn't we give him Drano?”

Let me say that this response would be mine, as well, if a man had left my sister and father lying in rivulets of their own blood. But here's the thing: This scenario is precisely why we don't let families sentence the murderer. It's the difference between a civil society and a loose band of feuding tribes. It's why the Sixth Amendment mandates an “impartial jury.” It's the 4,000 years that separate us from the jurisprudence of the sixth king of Babylon.

Like many conservative governors, Brewer aligns herself with a “culture of life,” i.e. a firm stance against abortion. Her “priorities” webpage stresses an “enduring advocacy for smaller government.” Curious, then, that she defends a culture of death through unempirical denials, and that her executive branch has such a draconian stance against transparency in the criminal justice system. The Arizona Supreme Court has ordered that the state “preserve any drug labels and unused drugs pertaining to the execution of Mr. Wood.” We'll see whether the Arizona Department of Corrections can learn anything from closely held (possibly polluted, certainly insufficient) doses of midazolam and hydromorphone that kept Wood alive for more than twice the time it took Dennis McGuire to die from the same cocktail in Ohio this January.

I agree with Brewer on one thing: Government can't always be trusted, especially not when it polices itself. Internal reviews are a tragically deficient way to deal with a national crisis over capital punishment. As states continue to use chemicals they don't understand, it's time for civilian action. The cherished notion of a “national conversation” is likewise insufficient. Time for a new war on drugs, whereby we force compounding pharmacies out of the shadows. We can do so in two ways, either by striking down shield laws that protect such pharmacies or by a netroots movement that circumvents those laws via Web-vigilantism. Until then, we will continue to watch through splayed fingers while a handful of states compete over who can kill its citizens most barbarically.