FLORENCE, Ariz. — As a condemned Arizona murderer gasped for more than 90 minutes in the death chamber, a judge convened an emergency hearing in which a state lawyer assured him that the inmate was comatose and not feeling any pain, according to a court document released Thursday.
A transcript of the hearing revealed behind-the-scenes drama as Joseph Rudolph Wood’s execution unfolded Wednesday. The hearing involved a defense lawyer, an attorney for the state, and the judge.
The nation’s third execution to go awry in six months has rekindled debate over the death penalty, and potentially handed new evidence to those building a case against lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment.
‘‘These executions are experiments on human subjects,’’ said Cheryl Pilate, a lawyer representing several Missouri death-row inmates. ‘‘The potential for things to go wrong is almost unlimited.’’
Lethal injection has been challenged in the courts many times, mostly without success. The biggest recent obstacle for death-penalty states has been obtaining lethal chemicals, after major drug manufacturers stopped selling them for use in executions. As a result, states have sought alternative drugs.
Wood took nearly two hours to die, and the execution lasted so long that his lawyers had time to file an emergency appeal while it was ongoing. The courts learned of his death during the discussions.
‘‘He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour,’’ Wood’s lawyers wrote in a legal filing demanding the courts stop it. ‘‘He is still alive.’’
In a call with Judge Neil V. Wake, the participants discussed Wood’s brain activity, heart rate, and whether he was feeling pain. They talked about whether it would do any good to stop the execution while it was so far along.
Jeffrey A. Zick, a lawyer for the state, spoke to the Department of Correction’s director on the phone and was given assurances from medical staff at the prison that Wood was not in any pain. Zick also said the governor’s office was notified of the situation.
‘‘The director indicated that in consultation with the IV team leader, who is a medical doctor, Mr. Wood is apparently comatose; that he cannot change course at his point,’’ Zick told the judge.
He also said a second dose of drugs had been given, but he did not provide specifics.
‘‘I am told that Mr. Wood is effectively brain dead, and that this is the type of reaction that one gets if they were taken off of life support. The brain stem is working but there’s no brain activity,’’ he said, according to the transcript.
The judge then asked: ‘‘Do you have the leads connected to determine his brain state?’’ The lawyer said he didn’t think so.
‘‘Well if there are not monitors connected with him, if it’s just a visual observation, that is very concerning as not being adequate,’’ the judge said.
Zick later informed the judge that Wood had died. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne’s office said Wood, 55, was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., 1 hour and 57 minutes after the execution started.
It is the third prolonged execution this year in the United States, including one in Ohio in which an inmate gasped in similar fashion for nearly 30 minutes. In April, an Oklahoma inmate died of a heart attack minutes after prison officials halted his execution because the drugs weren’t being administered properly.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer said after Wednesday’s execution that she was ordering a full review of the state’s process, and was concerned by how long it took for the administered drug protocol to kill Wood.
An Associated Press reporter who witnessed the execution saw Wood start gasping shortly after a sedative and a painkiller were injected into his veins. He gasped more than 600 times over the next hour and a half. During the gasps, his jaw dropped and his chest expanded and contracted.
‘‘Throughout this execution, I conferred and collaborated with our IV team members and was assured unequivocally that the inmate was comatose and never in pain or distress,’’ said Charles Ryan, director of the state Department of Correction.
Defense lawyer Dale Baich called it a ‘‘horrifically botched execution’’ that should have taken 10 minutes. ‘‘Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror,’’ Baich said.
Family members of Wood’s victims in a double murder said they had no problems with how the execution was carried out.
‘‘This man conducted a horrific murder and you guys are going, ‘Let’s worry about the drugs,’ ’’ said Richard Brown, the brother-in-law of Debbie Dietz. Wood was convicted of fatally shooting Dietz and her father, 55-year-old Gene Dietz, at their auto shop in Tucson in 1989.
Arizona uses the same drugs — the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone — that were used in the Ohio execution. A different combination was used in the Oklahoma case.