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Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state's M.O.
(Photo: ASchindl/Shutterstock)

(Photo: ASchindl/Shutterstock)

Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, has offered rosy declarations about the integrity of her state's execution protocols. “Justice was carried out today,” she announced after the gasping, snorting, two-hour execution of Joseph Wood on July 23. The process that day took so long that Wood's attorneys found time, during the second hour of the jerky proceedings, to file a stay against an execution that had already begun. With typical sangfroid, Brewer dismissed chilling accounts offered by witnesses to the execution, saying simply: “Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer.”

Still, as the Arizona Department of Corrections continues its internal review of the Woods execution, including the possible contamination of the two drugs used that day (midazolam and hydromorphone), watchdogs of various stripes are assessing the historical credibility of the state's chemical doings.

The failures of Arizona's internal review, the state's willful manipulation of its own rules, its frightening apathy toward modern medicine—these prevent the state from establishing a justice department that its citizens can trust.

The emerging picture is a nightmare—the portrait of a state and its malleable “execution protocol” that allows presiding doctors and prison administrators shocking latitude in choosing where to stick their needles, and what those needles will contain.

The New York Times on Monday compiled a series of case studies that are being reviewed by plaintiffs filing lawsuits against the state. In 2012, moments before a scheduled execution, the Arizona Department of Corrections discovered that their drugs had expired and MacGyvered a last-minute cocktail. In 2010, a presiding doctor refused to inject an inmate through a vein in his arm (the state's official method), aiming instead for the inner thigh. (His only explanation? “It's my preference.” The Times notes the needle's troubling proximity to the sentenced man's groin.) Meanwhile, Charles L. Ryan, director of the Corrections Department, has acknowledged under oath that “the state's protocol gave him virtually unlimited discretion to deviate from the written guidelines, essentially making him the ultimate arbiter in executions.”

The examples just get worse. In 2011, a medical team put down convicted murderer Donald Beaty with an ad hoc combination of drugs that they had researched by reading pharmacy labels and searching the Internet.

Then there is Jeffrey Landrigan. At Landrigan's execution in 2010, Ryan—a man with zero training in medicine, the Times notes—got a bit overzealous and started advocating high doses of “backup” drugs. According to the deposition of a doctor who had led five execution teams in Arizona:

Q. And do you know why the backup chemicals were administered to Mr. Landrigan?

A. The director preferred that all the chemicals be given, if possible.

Q. And if the director preferred that all chemicals be given, why did you say it was stopped halfway through?

A. Because I told him that once there was no blood flow that you could rupture his inferior vena cava if you kept trying to push the chemicals in.

Q. And so the director wanted to administer the chemicals once Mr. Landrigan was deceased; is that correct?

A. I don’t know if I can — if I can say that that’s what he said. He— he preferred that the chemicals be given. I don’t know that he said he wanted them given once he was dead.

Q. Did he consult with you before making the decision to administer the backup set of chemicals?

A. He told me that’s what he wanted done. And I — I — I believe that I explained to him that my concern would be that we wouldn’t, first of all, be able to give all of the chemicals, especially if he had – if the inmate had died. And I told him that I thought that it was possible that if the chemicals were pushed and pushed that you might have like a – the vein might rupture, and then they would just go inside the abdominal cavity. And he said, well, if — I mean, I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he indicated that he wanted us to try. And when we had trouble halfway through where the flow in the syringes was not, you know, easy at all, I — I looked at him and I said, I don’t think that this is a good idea. And he said, okay, that’s fine, stop.

This manner of chemical improvisation directly contravenes the state's own protocol. Or perhaps it is more precise to say that chemical improvisation has become the state's protocol. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit leveled with Arizona in 2012, declaring that the state “has insisted on amending its execution protocol on an ad hoc basis ... a rolling protocol that forces us to engage with serious constitutional questions and complicated factual issues in the waning hours before executions.”

The failures of Arizona's internal review, the state's willful manipulation of its own rules, its frightening apathy toward modern medicine—these prevent the state from establishing a justice department that its citizens can trust. With all eyes on police malfeasance in Ferguson, Missouri, it is time for a wholesale re-interrogation of the criminal justice system and how its inbuilt inequalities and purblind belief in the police state have corroded public trust.

A federal judge in Ohio has put a freeze on executions until 2015. For now let us hope that other states with dicey records on capital punishment will follow suit.