Arizona execution drug case heads to Supreme Court

AP News
Posted: Jul 22, 2014 3:07 AM

PHOENIX (AP) — A case challenging Arizona's refusal to reveal detailed information about the lethal drugs it plans to use to put an inmate to death is now headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dispute centers on whether a man convicted of killing his estranged girlfriend and her father has a constitutional right to know more about his execution than Arizona officials have been willing to disclose.

It comes amid nationwide scrutiny surrounding lethal injections as Arizona and several other states have withheld details of the process, including the supplier of their execution drugs, how or whether those drugs are tested, or details about the qualifications of the execution team.

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Arizona cannot execute Joseph Rudolph Wood, convicted in the 1989 shooting deaths, without providing the lethal injection information he has requested. The decision prompted state officials to say they will take their case to the nation's high court.

Arizona officials had been seeking to have the full 11-member 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturn a judgment from a three-judge panel that said Wood "raised serious questions" about whether he should have "access to lethal injection drug information and executioner qualifications."

The ruling against the state marked the first time that an appeals court has delayed an execution based on the issue of drug secrecy, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Some of the most active death penalty states — including Texas, Florida and Missouri — have been the subject of similar lawsuits from virtually every death row inmate facing imminent execution over the past several months, but courts have rarely stepped in.

Dale Baich, an attorney for Wood, said his team is "looking forward to Arizona turning over the information that we requested."

"The 9th Circuit has correctly recognized the importance of the information that Joe Wood sought," Baich said.

Arizona attorney general's office spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, however, said the state will file an application with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to dismiss the ruling and allow prison officials to put Wood to death without any such disclosures.

It's not clear whether the high court will take up the case, but Dieter said it shows judiciary disagreement on the issue. "That is often an invitation for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene," Dieter said.

If the Supreme Court does step in, death penalty experts say it's likely the appeals court decision will be overruled.

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, of the 9th Circuit, dissented from the decision Monday that led to the state's planned Supreme Court appeal.

"I have little doubt that the Supreme Court will thwart this latest attempt to interfere with the State of Arizona's efforts to carry out its lawful sentence and bring Wood to justice for the heinous crimes he committed a quarter century ago," Kozinski wrote.

The process of lethal injections and whether inmates unduly suffer has come into focus several times this year.

An Ohio inmate in January snorted and gasped during the 26 minutes it took him to die. And an Oklahoma execution was botched in April as prison officials halted the process after noticing the drugs weren't being administered properly. The inmate died of a heart attack several minutes later.

For decades, the vast majority of executions in the U.S. were carried out through the same method, a three-drug protocol using pharmaceuticals purchased from major drugmakers.

But in the mid-2000s, courts began to consider whether lethal injection could violate the inmates' constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court eventually allowed lethal injection to proceed, but the issue led major drug companies — many of them based in Europe, where opposition to the death penalty is strong — to stop selling drugs for use in executions.

States have turned to compounding pharmacies, which make drugs specifically for individual clients and don't face the same oversight as the bigger companies.

Neither the states nor the compounding pharmacies want their names made public, citing harassment concerns. When an Oklahoma compounding pharmacy was outed as Missouri's supplier early this year, it was met with protests and unwanted publicity. The pharmacy stopped selling to the Missouri Department of Corrections.


Jim Salter reported from St. Louis.


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