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Unvarnished reality of capital punishment

Joseph Rudolph Wood III was pronounced dead one hour and 57 minutes after his execution began.epa/arizona department of corrections

When it comes to the death penalty, Alex Kozinski, chief of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, prefers spattering blood to sugar-coating.

Instead of using lethal injections to execute the condemned, we should bring on the firing squad, he argues. We shouldn’t pretend capital punishment is a medical procedure, or even anything close to putting down a beloved pet.

He has a point. It’s better for everyone to see what justice, American-style, really looks like.

And we are seeing it more clearly than usual, most recently in the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood III. His death by lethal injection showcased the current reality of capital punishment, now that manufacturers of drugs used to carry it out have been refusing to supply them. Because it’s not that easy to concoct an optimum drug cocktail, the supposedly humane process of lethal injection is looking less humane — as it should, from Kozinski’s perspective.


Executions, wrote Kozinski in a dissent involving the Wood case, “are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should we. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.”

Kozinski — who supports the death penalty — was dissenting from a 9th Circuit decision to grant Wood a conditional stay of execution. The US Supreme Court overturned the stay, and Wood was executed on July 23. In 1989, he killed his 29-year-old ex-girlfriend, Debbie Dietz, and her father, Eugene.

Twenty-five years later, it took one hour and 57 minutes for Wood to die. Initial reports blamed the mix of drugs. Charles L. Ryan, the director of Arizona’s Department of Correction, told The New York Times the IV lines were “perfectly placed,” “the catheters in each arm were completely within the veins,” and “there was no leakage of any kind.” After Wood’s death, Arizona called a temporary halt to executions.


As Kozinski notes in his dissent, the federal government and all states that retain capital punishment now authorize the use of drugs for that purpose. But, “whatever the hopes and reasons for the switch to drugs, they proved to be misguided. Subverting medicines meant to heal the human body to the opposite purpose was an enterprise doomed to failure.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 26 people have been put to death since Jan. 1. The media reported three of those executions — including Wood’s — as “botched.” But perhaps it’s more accurate to think of them as satisfying Kozinski’s reality index.

Last January in Ohio, over the 26 minutes it took him to die, Dennis McGuire “started struggling and gasping loudly for air,” witnesses said. In April, Clayton Lockett writhed in pain after lethal drugs were administered. He ultimately died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the execution was called off.

Wood “has been gasping and snorting for more than a hour,” his public defenders wrote in an emergency motion for a stay of execution filed after the process began. But the execution continued, and it took close to another hour for him to succumb. “He gulped like a fish on land,” wrote Michael Kiefer, the Arizona Republic reporter who witnessed the execution. “I made a pencil stroke on a pad of paper, each time his mouth opened, and ticked off more than 640.”


To those who found Wood’s death “excruciating,” Jeanne Brown, the sister of victim Debbie Dietz, said, “You don’t know what excruciating is. Excruciating is seeing your dad lying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister lying there in a pool of blood. That’s excruciating. This man deserved it.”

Watching Wood die didn’t change Brown’s mind about the death penalty, but at least she watched. As Kozinski said in a follow-up interview with The Los Angeles Times after his dissenting opinion stirred up national debate, “We ought to come face to face with what we’re doing. If we’re not comfortable with what we’re doing, we should not be doing it.”

He’s right. When it comes to the death penalty, we all should look at the writhing and hear the gasps for as long as we can stand it. No sugar-coating allowed.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.