“We’ve finally got some traction to raise the issue of the death penalty and why you should oppose it,” Dan Peitzmeyer, president of Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona, said by phone from Phoenix July 26. “During the last three days there has been a great deal of interest. People are talking about it, media are asking, facts are coming to light.”
The same two-drug combination that killed Wood — who was sentenced to death in 1991 for killing his ex-girlfriend and her father in 1989 — was used for the first time in the 26-minute execution of Dennis McGuire in Ohio Jan. 16. McGuire repeatedly gasped for air, making snorting and choking sounds. When Clayton Lockett was injected with a three-drug combination in Oklahoma April 29, it took 43 minutes before he died.
In 2009 the main pharmaceutical company that supplied drugs used for lethal injections ceased production in face of growing opposition worldwide to their use in executions. State officials have since been experimenting with new drug combinations and pursuing alternative techniques to legally kill people, including firing squads, the electric chair and hanging.
The death penalty is on the books in 32 states and so far this year 26 people have been put to death. Last year the U.S. carried out the fifth most executions worldwide after China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Since 2007 six states have abolished the death penalty. Another seven states, including Ohio and Oklahoma, have put executions on hold either because of legal challenges or a moratorium declared by the governor. U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney ruled July 16 that there are so many arbitrary delays when death row inmates appeal California death penalty sentences that it amounts to a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unjust punishment.
Between 1996 and 2007, opposition to the death penalty has risen from 18 to 37 percent, according to the Washington Post. One factor has been a growing number of cases in which DNA, other evidence or legal appeals have exonerated those sentenced to death — 144 since 1993.
While most states use lethal injection in executions, eight allow electrocution; three allow the gas chamber (Arizona, Missouri, Wyoming); three allow hanging (Delaware, New Hampshire and Washington); and two states the firing squad (Oklahoma and Utah) if other methods are found unconstitutional.
For three decades most executions relied on the same three-drug combination: an anesthetic, a paralytic drug and a drug that stops the heart. When an increasing number of manufacturers stopped supplying these drugs state governments scrambled to find others. As the experimentation increased, so has the secrecy about it. Oklahoma officials, for example, have been buying the drugs using the prison agency’s petty-cash.
In Texas, officials bought pentobarbital in Houston without a prescription from a compounding pharmacy unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
“While justice was carried out today, I directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process. One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in a July 23 statement.
On July 21, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had granted a stay of Wood’s execution for lack of detailed information about the drugs that would be used to kill him. Ninth Circuit Court Chief Judge Alex Kozinski dissented, writing that the government should stop trying to “mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful. … and return to more primitive — and foolproof — methods of execution. The guillotine is probably the best, but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. … The firing squad strikes me as the most promising.” The U.S. Supreme Court lifted the stay a day later.
“We think it’s absurd to talk about how to kill instead of asking why,” said Peitzmeyer. “We are opposed to the death penalty. It’s a weapon against the poorest, the weakest, the most vulnerable. Rich people don’t get sentenced to death.”
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