Skip to main content

Botched executions can't be new norm

By Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno
September 8, 2014 -- Updated 1114 GMT (1914 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Four men have been subjected to botched executions this year, authors say
  • In Arizona, it took Joseph Wood two hours to die
  • Authors say states veil their procedures in secrecy, contributing to the problem
  • States must disclose much more information and courts should review process, they say

Editor's note: Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno are attorneys with the Death Penalty Clinic, Lethal Injection Project, at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors. CNN's original series "Death Row Stories" explores America's complex capital punishment system. Join the conversation about the death penalty at facebook.com/cnn or Twitter @CNNOrigSeries using #DeathRowStories.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, July 23, the State of Arizona executed Joseph Rudolph Wood in the fourth visibly bungled execution this year. The execution began at 1:52 p.m. According to eyewitness Michael Kiefer, "Wood was unconscious by 1:57 p.m. At about 2:05, he started gasping." He continued to gasp for over 90 minutes.

Afterward, eyewitness Troy Hayden reported, "Joe Wood is dead, but it took him two hours to die. To watch a man lay there for an hour and 40 minutes gulping air, I can liken it to, if you catch a fish and throw it on the shore, the way the fish opens and closes its mouth."

Kiefer counted more than 640 gasps.

Arizona engaged in a failed experiment. Its new execution protocol called for administration of two drugs, midazolam and hydromorphone. The only other time this drug combination had been used was the prolonged and similarly disturbing Ohio execution of Dennis McGuire, who took 24 minutes to die and struggled for air for 10 to 13 minutes.

Eyewitness Alan Johnson reported that McGuire "gasped deeply. It was kind of a rattling, guttural sound. There was kind of a snorting through his nose. A couple of times, he definitely appeared to be choking."

Cruel and unusual execution?
Lethal injection explained

Faced with these well-documented problems, Arizona adopted Ohio's procedure but increased the amount of each drug (from 10 milligrams to 50 milligrams for midazolam and from 40mg to 50mg for hydromorphone). The state refused to reveal, however, its process for selecting the new doses or whether it conducted due diligence to determine that its protocol would be more effective. Notwithstanding the changes Arizona made to the drug formula, Wood's execution went even worse than McGuire's.

Despite requests from Wood's lawyers, Arizona also refused to reveal the source of its drugs -- including the manufacturer, lot number and expiration date -- and the qualifications of its execution team members.

Nothing about this information would compromise the identity of those participating in executions, but it would allow the courts and the public to analyze whether the execution procedures will work as intended and bring about death in a way that meets the requirements of the Eighth Amendment.

Callan: Are death penalty delays 'cruel and unusual'?

Four men -- Michael Wilson, McGuire, Clayton Lockett and Wood -- have been subjected to bungled executions this year. Although the drugs, doses and other details of the procedures differed in each execution, the commonality between them is that the departments of corrections used experimental drug combinations and shielded crucial aspects of their practices in secrecy.

Even in the aftermath of the executions, the lack of transparency continues. While governors in both Oklahoma and Arizona have called for reviews of the problematic executions, no outside authorities have been brought in to conduct the investigations.

Internal investigations are insufficient to the task. Departments of corrections cannot be allowed to provide pat explanations that leave central questions unanswered, minimize errors and hide relevant information about what went wrong.

Instead, there must be independent investigations of each execution that goes awry and thorough, public reporting of the results. Without truly independent investigations, it will be impossible to make meaningful conclusions about what went wrong or to determine if changes can be made to ensure that the same errors do not happen again.

Chemical mix and human error lead to controversial executions

The botched executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma show us that when states are allowed to devise novel, untested execution protocols without judicial scrutiny or public oversight, the resulting procedures are unreliable. And when the unreliable procedures are implemented, the consequences are gruesome and horrific.

States cannot be allowed to continue carrying out death sentences without judicial review of their execution procedures. The courts must require departments of corrections to disclose key aspects of these procedures, particularly with respect to the provenance of the drugs used and the qualifications of the execution personnel.

Without this oversight, botched executions will become the new norm. No additional executions should proceed until the states act with transparency, and the courts scrutinize execution procedures to ensure that they comport with the U.S. Constitution.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT