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Department Of Justice Action Prompts Arizona To Renew Pursuit Of Death Penalty Drugs

Assistant Federal Public Defender Dale Baich has witnessed 11 executions by lethal injection.

“It’s ... eerily silent,” he said recalling the experience. “In the witness room, the witnesses don’t speak. There is a low hum of the air-conditioning unit and occasionally a voice coming over the speakers announcing that 'the prisoner is sedated' or that 'the execution is complete.'"

But in 2014, during the execution of his client Joseph Wood at the state prison in Florence, something went wrong. The announcements kept repeating. "The prisoner remains sedated. The prisoner remains sedated." But Wood wasn’t acting sedated.

“We could hear the sound that was coming from Mr. Wood," Baich said, "and it sounded like, like a freight train."

Wood’s mouth was open. He was bucking against the restraints and making a sucking, gulping, gasping sound. It went on for two hours before the announcement finally came that the execution was complete.

The dramatic nature of Wood’s death prompted the state to suspend executions.

'Time To Resume'

There are currently 116 people on death row in Arizona. Fourteen of them have exhausted the appeals process.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich said a recent opinion from the Department of Justice has cleared the way to import the drugs necessary to resume executions by lethal injection.

“I think we have an obligation to uphold the rule of law and make sure those sentences are carried out,” Brnovich said.

Since the Wood execution, Arizona adopted a single-drug protocol. In a recent letter to the governor, Brnovich said he believed the DOJ had obtained a drug suitable for single-drug execution: pentobarbital.

"And so I will work with the Department of Corrections to make sure that they can procure the necessary drugs in a lawful manner to carry out injections,” Brnovich said.

Looking Overseas

Megan McCracken, an attorney who specializes in method of execution challenges, said pharmaceutical companies that produce FDA-approved drugs have come out against their use in executions, forcing states to find alternative sources. “States are looking overseas because they have difficulty obtaining the drugs here,” she said.

McCracken said some states have turned to compounding pharmacies to make drugs for them in small batches.

"Or it could be that there are importation of drugs that are illegal," she said. "They’re not otherwise allowed into the country, but it could be that states will attempt to import the drugs.”

Arizona’s previous attempts to import death penalty drugs were thwarted by the federal government. If the state tries again, Baich said the process should be transparent.

“We want to make sure that if the state gets drugs that the drugs are safe and will be effective, and obtained from a legitimate source," he said. "Because if the state does carry out an execution, it should not be prolonged, and the prisoner should not experience pain.”

'They Got It Way Wrong'

Brnovich said he believes too much attention has been paid to the defendants on death row instead of seeking justice for their victims. He said he has no doubt of the guilt of the 14 people set for execution.

“Every single one of them committed heinous crimes, and so I think every single one of them deserves the ultimate punishment," he said. "We don't do the death penalty because we want to. A state or a society carries out the death penalty because it feels like it has to."

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, since 1973, 166 people have been exonerated from death row. Ray Krone spent 10 years on death row in Arizona until he was freed by DNA evidence.

“I supported the death penalty," Krone said. "I believed in the death penalty because it wasn’t going to affect me or my family and I thought it was for the worst of the worst.”

He thought some people deserved to die, and he believed the death penalty served as a deterrent to crime.

“Most of all, I believed that they got it right," Krone said. "Well, I found out that they got it way wrong.”

He said instead of pursuing death penalty drugs, states should rethink their policies on capital punishment.

“Because your anger, your emotion, your sense of revenge, is exactly what that person that you’re condemning, that person that you’re out to pay retribution to - it’s exactly what they experienced.”

Jimmy Jenkins is a senior field correspondent at KJZZ and a contributor to NPR’s Election 2020 and Criminal Justice station collaborations. His work has been featured on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, Here and Now, The Takeaway and NPR Newscasts.Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Jenkins has a B.S. in criminology from Indiana State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Indiana University.Much of his reporting has focused on the criminal justice system. Jenkins has reported on Tasers, body cameras, use of force, jail privatization, prison health care and the criminal contempt trial of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.