The controversy over the drugs used in US executions has been reignited after a convicted murderer took nearly two hours to die by lethal injection.
Joseph Wood shot dead his ex-girlfriend and her father in 1989.
His lawyers filed an unsuccessful emergency appeal to multiple federal courts that sought to have the execution in Arizona halted, citing other botched executions.
Prison authorities said he was sedated, but witnesses said he repeatedly gasped for air.
“Once he was sedated, he just laid there and took several gasps. I counted probably more than 600 gasps during the nearly two hours it took for him to die. But he was sedated, so all we heard, very occasionally, was him snoring, and that was when the doctors went and checked on him and came on the microphone and said that he was sedated. That was really the only time we were able to have audio of what was going on,” said Astrid Galvan, a reporter from the Associated Press.
“It was nerve-wracking because it went on so much longer than expected. There were a lot of, kind of, glances exchanged between people, the attorneys and the media witnesses, and it just generally was kind of (an) air of nervousness about why it was taking so long.”
Wood was sentenced to death in 1991 for murdering Gene Dietz and his daughter Debbie with whom he had had an unstable, violent relationship.
Two years earlier he had walked into the shop where she worked and shot her father in the chest with a revolver. He then found Debbie and shot her in the abdomen and the chest.
The victims’ family say there has been too much focus in the media on the execution rather than the relatives’ suffering.
“You guys are blowing this all out of proportion with these drugs. This man conducted a horrifying murder and you guys are going ‘Oh, let’s worry about the drug and how he effect’. Why didn’t we give him a bullet?” said Richard Brown, a relative of the murder victims.
Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer expressed concern over the procedure and ordered a review, but said justice had been done.
Wood had been one of six death row prisoners who sued Arizona last month arguing that secrecy surrounding the drugs used in other botched executions in Ohio and Oklahoma violated their rights.
But he exhausted his appeals on Wednesday when the Arizona Supreme Court lifted a hold after reviewing a last-minute appeal that involved demands for more information about the lethal drug cocktail to be used in the execution.
Anti-death penalty campaigners expressed horror over the drawn-out death.
Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, said Arizona had broken constitutional rights, and the bounds of basic decency.
“It’s time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure,” she said.
In January, convicted rapist and murderer Dennis McGuire was put to death in Ohio using a sedative-painkiller mix of midazolam and hydromorphone, the first such combination administered for a lethal injection in the United States. The execution took about 25 minutes to complete, with McGuire reportedly convulsing and gasping for breath.
In Oklahoma in April, convicted killer Clayton Lockett writhed in pain and a needle became dislodged during his lethal injection at a state prison. The execution was halted, but Lockett died about 30 minutes later of a heart attack.