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McCain: Prolonged Arizona execution was 'torture'

By Ben Brumfield and Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 7:15 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Arizona temporarily halts executions after prolonged execution
  • Sen. John McCain says the nearly two-hour incident is tantamount to torture
  • Media witnesses say Arizona murderer Joseph Wood gasped intensely
  • His attorneys tried to halt the execution more than halfway through and have Wood revived

CNN's original series "Death Row Stories" explores America's complex capital punishment system. Join the conversation about the death penalty at facebook.com/cnn or Twitter @CNNorigSeries using #DeathRowStories.

(CNN) -- Arizona has temporarily halted executions after the prolonged death of a convicted killer during an execution described by Sen. John McCain and others as tantamount to torture.

It took death row inmate Joseph Wood two hours to die Wednesday afternoon. His attorney says Wood "gasped and struggle to breathe" after receiving a novel combination of drugs.

McCain told Politico he supports the death penalty in some cases, but he said Wood's execution was carried out in a "terrible" way. "The lethal injection needs to be an indeed lethal injection and not the bollocks-upped situation that just prevailed. That's torture," he told Politico on Thursday.

The Arizona Republican knows a little something about torture. McCain served as a U.S. military pilot in Vietnam. He was shot down, captured and beaten and tortured.

After Gov. Jan Brewer ordered a review, the state's attorney general ordered a halt to all executions, pending the investigation of the Wood case.

"I have been advised by the Arizona attorney general that his office will not seek any warrants of execution prior to the completion of the review of this matter," said Corrections Director Charles Ryan.

Reporter Troy Hayden witnessed the execution and compared Wood's death last breaths to "a fish on shore gulping for air." Wood's attorneys even tried to stop the execution more than halfway through, with one calling it "bungled" and "botched."

State officials and his victims' relatives disagreed, saying Wood snored and didn't appear to be in agony.

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Reports that the execution was botched are "erroneous," Ryan said.

Wood was comatose and never in pain during his execution, he added. "The record clearly shows the inmate was fully and deeply sedated ... three minutes after the administration of the execution drugs."

Arizona execution raises questions over novel lethal injections

Wood's slow death is fueling a debate stirred up as states look for new drug combinations for lethal injections, thanks in part to pharmaceutical companies' decisions to withhold or stop making drugs used in the past.

"It took Joseph Wood two hours to die, and he gasped and struggled to breathe for about an hour and 40 minutes. We will renew our efforts to get information about the manufacturer of drugs as well as how Arizona came up with the experimental formula of drugs it used today," attorney Dale Baich said in a statement.

He added, "Arizona appears to have joined several other states who have been responsible for an entirely preventable horror -- a bungled execution."

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One of the victims' relatives had a strongly different view -- that he didn't suffer, and that he got what he deserved.

"I don't believe he was gasping for air; I don't believe he was suffering. It sounded to me like was snoring," said the relative, Jeanne Brown.

"You don't know what excruciating is. What's excruciating is seeing your dad laying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister laying there in a pool of blood. This man deserved it. And I shouldn't really call him a man," she said.

Wood had been convicted of murder and assault in the 1989 deaths of his estranged girlfriend and her father.

The state used midazolam, an anesthetic, and hydromorphone, a narcotic painkiller that, with an overdose, halts breathing and stops the heart from beating. It's one of the new combinations that states have tried -- with some controversial results -- after manufacturers based or operating in Europe prevented U.S. prisons from using their drugs in executions.

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CNN's Shelby Lin Erdman, Mayra Cuevas, Dave Alsup, Ross Levitt and Michael Pearson contributed to this report.

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