News & Politics

Witness to 2-Hour Arizona Execution: Joseph Wood Gasped for Air Before He Died

"It was clear that nothing was as it was supposed to be."

You want to be prepared to watch a man who has been prepared to die. Wednesday afternoon was scheduled to be the state of Arizona's first time using this particular combination of lethal-injection drugs. But this was also my first time witnessing a state execution, so I made sure the state prison staff here had a notepad ready, and I asked my colleagues what it was supposed to be like.

It's all very clinical, I was told. The end of death row usually lasts about 10 minutes.

This was not what I saw inside the execution chamber when Joseph Wood died. That took 117 minutes, and it was clear that nothing was as it was supposed to be.

After going through prison security, and waiting for hours because of a last-minute appeal to the Arizona supreme court, prison staff escorted us—just a handful of witnesses—across the vast yard and into the small place where a killer was about to be killed. The family of Debra and Eugene Dietz, the couple Wood brutally shot and killed at a Tucson autobody shop in 1989, followed. We were all seated under televisions, with images of Wood strapped to the gurney above.

The curtains opened. The medical staff checked the man's veins. He said his last words—"God forgive you all"—and the lethal drugs began to flow, at 1:52pm. James Wood appeared to fall asleep, albeit strapped down to a table, and he looked straight ahead at the wall. The first 10 minutes went according to plan.

Then, a hard gulp. I looked over to my left: the priest praying the rosary. To my right: the family watching on. Then dead ahead: the side of Wood's stomach appeared to move, even after the Arizona state prison's medical staff had announced he was sedated.

I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing—or choking, possibly even gasping for air. I knew this because Wood's stomach moved at the same time, just like it would if you were lying down and trying to breath. Then another of those gulps—those gasps for air, movements from the throat area and sometimes from the stomach, too.

I started looking at the priest's watch to keep track of time. Five, 10, 20 minutes...an hour had passed. I started to wonder: Will this be called off? Will it ever stop?

I continued to scribble on my state-issued notepad, counting the gulps and gasps of the man on the gurney. I counted 660. This went on for over an hour and a half.

During that time, medical staff checked Wood six times in total, looking at his eyes, feeling for a pulse on his neck, informing us over the loud speaker that he was still sedated. His eyes were still closed.

My eyes turned to Wood's attorney, Dale Baich, as he handed a lady a note and she left the witness chamber. I wondered what the lawyer had written, and as the door opened, it let in a bright light, for just a quick moment.

What seemed like an eternity passed—20, 30, 45 minutes more—and finally the gulps and gasps started to slow, from about every five seconds or so, to about one per minute. Finally, they stopped. A few minutes went by. At last, the killing had stopped, too. A medical staff member checked Wood again one last time. Another few minutes still, and the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3:49pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution had begun.

The family left, and the staff escorted the rest of us out. At a small press conference, Debbie Dietz's brother-in-law said Wood's two hours were "nothing compared to what happened on August 7, 1989." The state corrections department said Wood did not suffer. The attorney general's office said "he did not gasp for air."

I looked at my notepad once more: 660 gasps and gulps. By the priest's watch, it was almost 5pm. I thought: Is this how long it's supposed to take a man to die?

Mauricio Marin is a multimedia journalist at Tuscon News Now and a reporter for KOLD News 13 and KMSB Fox 11 in Arizona. 

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