PHOENIX — In an execution in 2010 in Arizona, the presiding doctor was supposed to connect the intravenous line to the convict’s arm — a procedure written into the state’s lethal injection protocol and considered by many doctors as the easiest and best way to attach a line. Instead he chose to use a vein in an upper thigh, near the groin.
“It’s my preference,” the doctor said later in a deposition, testifying anonymously because of his role as a five-time executioner. For his work, he received $5,000 to $6,000 per day — in cash — with two days for practice before each execution.
That improvisation is not unusual for Arizona, where corrections officials and medical staff members routinely deviate from the state’s written rules for conducting executions, state records and court filings show. Sometimes they improvise even while a convict is strapped to a table in the execution chamber and waiting for the drugs coursing through his veins to take effect.
In 2012, when Arizona was scheduled to execute two convicted murderers, its Corrections Department discovered at the last minute that the expiration dates for the drugs it was planning to use had passed, so it decided to switch drug methods. Last month, Arizona again deviated from its execution protocol, and things did not go as planned: Convicted murderer Joseph R. Wood III took nearly two hours to die, during which he received 13 more doses of lethal drugs than the two doses set out by the state’s rules.
While it is unclear whether the constant changes have led to cruel and unusual punishment, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals became so disturbed in 2012 about the expired drugs that it chastised the state, saying Arizona “has insisted on amending its execution protocol on an ad hoc basis.” While the court permitted the two executions to proceed and they went off without a hitch, the 9th Circuit nonetheless observed that Arizona had a “rolling protocol that forces us to engage with serious constitutional questions and complicated factual issues in the waning hours before executions.”
Douglas A. Berman, an expert on criminal sentencing at Ohio State University, said corrections officials tended to have a cavalier attitude that might now be backfiring on them. As Berman archly put it, “What’s the big deal, as long as the guy ends up dead and I’m not literally torturing the guy along the way?” Prison officials and execution teams, he said, “don’t see any adjustment that they are making as likely to cause unnecessary suffering or pain.”