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Arizona Could Resume Executions With Single-Drug Protocol


The Department of Justice plans to resume federal executions, so some states have gone looking for lethal injection drugs. Arizona is one of them. Jimmy Jenkins from member station KJZZ in Phoenix has this story. And just a quick note - there are graphic details in this piece that some people will find disturbing.

JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: Assistant federal public defender Dale Baich has witnessed 11 executions by lethal injection. He says the experience is usually the same.

DALE BAICH: It's eerily silent.

JENKINS: In the witness rooms of different state prisons across the country, no one speaks except for periodic updates from the staff.

BAICH: Occasionally, a voice coming over the speakers announcing the prisoner is sedated or that the execution is complete.

JENKINS: But in 2014, at the state prison in Florence, Ariz., something went wrong. Soon after officials began the lethal injection process of Baich's client Joseph Wood, the first announcement came. The prisoner is sedated. However, Wood wasn't acting sedated.

BAICH: We could hear the sound that was coming from Mr. Wood, and it sounded like a freight train.

JENKINS: Wood's mouth was open. He was bucking against the restraints and making a gulping, gasping sound. It went on for two hours before the final announcement came. The execution was complete. The dramatic nature of Wood's death and the ineffective nature of the method prompted the state to suspend executions and change the lethal injection guidelines. There are currently 116 people on death row in Arizona; 14 of them have exhausted the appeals process.

MARK BRNOVICH: I think we have an obligation to uphold the rule of law and make sure those sentences are carried out.

JENKINS: Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich says a recent opinion from the Department of Justice has cleared the way to import the drugs necessary to resume executions by lethal injection. Botched efforts like the Wood execution have raised questions about the most effective drugs to use. Arizona has since 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.

BRNOVICH: 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.

MEGAN MCCRACKEN: States are looking overseas for drugs to use in executions because they have difficulty obtaining the drugs here.

JENKINS: Megan McCracken is an attorney who specializes in method of execution challenges. She says pharmaceutical companies that produce FDA-approved drugs like pentobarbital have come out against their use in executions, forcing states to find alternative sources. Some states like Texas, with the highest number of executions in the country, have turned to compounding pharmacies to make drugs in small batches.

MCCRACKEN: Or it could be that there will be importation of drugs that are illegal. They're not FDA-approved drugs; they're not otherwise allowed into the country. But it could be that states will attempt to import the drugs.

JENKINS: That's exactly what Arizona has tried to do in the past, but their efforts were thwarted by the federal government. If the state tries again, Dale Baich says the drugs should be obtained from a legitimate source.

BAICH: Because if the state does carry out an execution, it should not be prolonged and the prisoner should not suffer and experience pain.

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

BRNOVICH: Every single one of them committed heinous crimes, and so I think every single one of them deserves the ultimate punishment.

JENKINS: Both Arizona and Ohio recently renewed their applications with the DEA to import pentobarbital, but it's not clear if they've been able to acquire the drug.

For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jimmy Jenkins