Arizona is changing the mixture of drugs it uses for lethal injections after an execution this summer left an inmate alive for almost two hours, the Associated Press reports. In a letter to Governor Jan Brewer, Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan said that the state would be abandoning its current sedative and painkiller combination, potentially replacing it with an older alternative.
The news comes in response to an independent report investigating the death of Joseph Rudolph Wood, a convicted murderer who was executed by lethal injection earlier this year. The process, which should have taken minutes to work, dragged on as Wood "gasped and snorted," eventually taking an hour and 57 minutes before he was pronounced dead. It's the latest incident to raise questions about whether lethal injection, adopted as a supposedly more humane alternative to older execution methods, can actually deliver a painless death.
According to the AP, the report found that prison staff carried out the execution correctly. Instead, the problem was that Wood "did not react to the drugs as expected." The mixture, a combination of the sedative midazolam and the painkiller hydromorphone, is a relatively new adoption, and there are questions about whether it's an ethical or effective choice for capital punishment. Its provenance also isn't clear; in the wake of Wood's death, several news outlets sued the state, asking it to reveal the source of the drug. For the past several years, states have been filling the void left by a shortage of traditional lethal injection drugs. The Dutch company behind one of these, the barbiturate Nembutal or pentobarbital, announced in 2011 that it would refuse to sell its products for use in executions. Ryan plans to switch to a combination of pentobarbital and sodium pentothal if possible, falling back on a three-drug combination if the state can't find supplies.
Wood's death is one of several failed or prolonged lethal injections. Earlier in 2014, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett suddenly regained consciousness during his execution; it was stopped, but Lockett died soon after of a heart attack. The problem reportedly stemmed from a misplaced needle, and the White House condemned Lockett's death as inhumane. Oklahoma and Arizona, along with other states, have temporarily halted executions as they investigate the deaths.