Skip to main content

Chemical mix and human error lead to controversial executions

By Ralph Ellis, CNN
updated 2:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prolonged death of Arizona inmate sparks renewed concerns about capital punishment
  • Professor's definition of a bad execution: "Prolonged suffering" for 20 minutes or more
  • Lethal chemicals clogged tube leading to John Wayne Gacy's arm
  • Sometimes execution teams have trouble finding a suitable vein

(CNN) -- Arizona spent two hours killing death row inmate Joseph Wood this week, an unusually long time for an execution. Wood's death has reopened the debate about capital punishment and lethal injection. Lethal injection is used in all 32 states that have the death penalty.

Some witnesses said Wood was gasping for breath and seemed to be in pain. Others said he was simply snoring. The state of Arizona said Wood didn't suffer. Either way, there are renewed concerns that executions, which are supposed to be quick and painless, are neither.

Typically executions are performed using three drugs in stages. The first drug is an anesthetic. The second drug is called a paralytic and the third drug is supposed to stop the heart.

For years, executioners used a drug called sodium thiopental as the first drug, the anesthetic, until the only U.S. producer of the drug stopped making it. Then the United States turned to European manufacturers, but they refused to sell the drug for use in executions.

Since sodium thiopental was taken off the market for executions, states have turned to a drug called midazolam for the anesthetic. But experts believe there have been problems with the drug in at least three executions. The problems described by witnesses included gasping, snorting or choking sounds and, in one execution, the inmate was described as speaking.

Wood was injected with midazolam on Wednesday, as well as hydromorphone, a narcotic painkiller that, with an overdose, halts breathing and stops the heart from beating. It is one of the new combinations that states have tried, with some controversial results.

What would qualify as a botched execution? Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology and law, said an execution is botched when it looks like the inmate endured "prolonged suffering" for 20 minutes or more.

Whether they're "botched" or not, plenty of executions don't go by the book. Most of the executions listed here were compiled by Human Rights Watch.

Dennis McGuire, executed January 16, 2014, in Ohio. Columbus Dispatch reporter Alan Johnson said the execution process took 24 minutes, and that McGuire appeared to be gasping for air for 10 to 13 minutes. He had been injected with midazolam and hydromorphone, a two-drug combination that hadn't been used before in the United States. McGuire, 53, was convicted in 1994 in the rape and murder of a 22-year-old pregnant woman.

Clayton Lockett, executed April 29, 2014, in Oklahoma. Lockett was injected with midazolam, but instead of becoming unconscious, he twitched, convulsed and spoke. The execution was halted, but Lockett died after 43 minutes. A team that prepared Lockett for execution failed to set a properly functioning IV in his leg, according to preliminary findings of an independent autopsy. Lockett was convicted in the 1999 death of an Oklahoma woman who was buried alive after she was raped and shot.

Jose High, executed November 7, 2001, in Georgia. This execution illustrates a common problem. The execution team had trouble finding a usable vein and spent 39 minutes looking before finally sticking a needle into High's hand. A second needle was inserted between his neck and shoulder by a physician. Sixty-nine minutes after the execution began, he was pronounced dead. High was convicted in a 1976 store robbery and the kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old boy.

Claude Jones, executed December 7, 2000, in Texas. The execution team spent 30 minutes looking for a suitable vein, a difficult task because of Jones' history of drug abuse. He was convicted in the 1990 murder of a liquor store owner.

Joseph Cannon, executed April 23, 1998, in Texas. The needle popped out and Cannon said to witnesses, "It's come undone." The needle was reinserted and 15 minutes later a weeping Cannon made his second final statement. He was convicted of murder.

John Wayne Gacy, executed May 10, 1994, in Illinois. Lethal chemicals solidified and clogged in the IV tube leading to Gacy's arm. A new tube was installed and the execution proceeded. Gacy, one of America's most notorious killers, was convicted in 1980 of raping and killing 33 boys and young men he lured into his home.

Charles Walker, executed September 12, 1990, in Illinois. The execution was prolonged because a kink in the plastic tubing stopped the flow of chemicals into Walker's body and an intravenous needle pointed at Walker's fingers, instead of his heart, said a Missouri State Prison engineer hired to assist in the execution. Walker was convicted of two counts of murder.

Raymond Landry, executed December 13, 1988, in Texas. The catheter dislodged and flew through the air two minutes after injection of drugs into Landry's body. The execution team spent 14 minutes inserting it again and Landry was pronounced dead 40 minutes after being strapped to the gurney. He had been convicted of murder.

Shelby Lin Erdman contributed to this report

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
She depends on her iPhone and plays Plants vs. Zombies. At 75, death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean hasn't slowed down.
updated 6:46 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
As manufacturers cut off supplies of lethal injection drugs, states look for new drug combinations for executions.
updated 2:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
One death has reopened the debate about capital punishment and lethal injection.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
An infographic illustrates America's record on executions by race, state, year and method since the death penalty was reinstated more than 30 years ago.
updated 8:03 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
More than 14,000 people have been executed under U.S. law. About 3,000 more are slated for execution on death rows across the nation.
updated 7:16 AM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
Clayton Lockett's botched lethal injection and deadly heart attack raises disturbing questions about how the U.S. executes death row prisoners.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Sat April 5, 2014
After John Thompson survived 14 years on death row he had to figure out how to return to the world.
updated 9:46 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
Just weeks away from execution, see the evidence that saved John Thompson's life.
updated 6:23 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson describes his reaction after Louisiana set his official execution date.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
A first-time meeting between death row inmate John Thompson and his appellate lawyers yields mutual skepticism.
updated 6:24 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Death row inmate John Thompson confronts a proposed shift in legal strategy aimed at saving his life.
updated 5:30 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Teresa McAbee, age 11, was found dead, floating in a Florida lake. Repercussions from her murder continue nearly 30 years later.
updated 5:38 AM EDT, Fri March 28, 2014
Longtime Miami-area homicide detective Marshall Frank has met some really bad people. He reveals three steps to coax killers to confess their crimes.
updated 4:11 PM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
A mother convicted of a murder to which her son has confessed won't be executed Thursday as judges review her post-conviction motion.
updated 6:17 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Never imprisoned before, ex-cop James Duckett describes his first moments as a convicted killer on death row.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Why wasn't a key piece of evidence shown to jurors? Can a simple notebook prove a man's innocence?
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
A retired homicide detective examines the strange case of an ex-cop sentenced to death row for the murder of an 11-year-old girl.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
He's been a priest, a nurse and an attorney -- but nothing could prepare Neil Kookoothe for his discovery in the case of Joe D'Ambrosio.
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Joe D'Ambrosio, like many inmates, claimed he was innocent. As he learned, claiming it is one thing. Proving it is another.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
Although his conviction was overturned, prosecutors tried to keep an ex-death row inmate locked up before his new trial.
updated 3:46 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Why did Joyce Ride, mother of NASA's first woman in space, fight to free Gloria Killian? "I'm profoundly annoyed by injustice."
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Tue March 11, 2014
Judge the murder case against former law student Gloria Killian for yourself. Take a look at the evidence.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
When police questioned an unwitting Gloria Killian after a brutal murder, she used a poor choice of words.
updated 3:40 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Well into her 32-years-to-life murder sentence, Gloria Killian met a friend on the outside who was willing to listen.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Prison lifer Gloria Killian's defense team finds a previously unknown letter that may help win her freedom.
updated 4:10 PM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Legal intern Diana Holt refused to believe that death row inmate Edward Lee Elmore was a killer. So began the fight of their lives.
updated 7:31 AM EST, Fri March 7, 2014
Examine the evidence in the murder case against Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 4:30 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Three weeks before his execution date, Edward Lee Elmore asked his attorney a heartbreaking question. Watch her tearful response.
updated 4:28 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
Diana Holt was searching for alternate suspects in a brutal murder case. What she discovered made her head spin.
updated 1:51 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
A law student was sent to meet a death row inmate accused of a horrible murder. Their meeting triggered the beginning of an amazing story.
updated 4:16 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Virtual "killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq led to a spike in the number of executions globally last year, according to Amnesty International.
updated 6:15 PM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Watch a frank, online discussion about the death penalty and the case of Edward Lee Elmore.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Thu August 22, 2013
Some death penalty opponents will admit it: the worst of the worst of the worst, DO deserve to die.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
Execution chamber
Killing people by lethal injection will soon be as old as burning heretics at the stake -- at least in the civilized world.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Before Ohio executed him by legal injection, inmate Dennis McGuire appeared to gasp and convulse.
updated 1:58 PM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
Death row inmates deal with demons in different ways. William Van Poyck chose to write.
updated 12:54 AM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
A shortage of lethal injection drugs contributes to a dip in the use of capital punishment.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT