US & Canada

US Supreme Court allows Arizona to execute Joseph Wood

Two guards stand in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington DC 12 June 2008 Image copyright Getty Images

The US Supreme Court has cleared the way for Arizona to execute a murderer who had sought information about the lethal drugs to be used to kill him.

Joseph Wood's execution is scheduled for 23 July.

He argued the state's refusal to name the drugs' maker violated his rights. On Saturday an appeals court agreed, halting the execution.

The case comes as states are having trouble obtaining lethal injection drugs amid a European export ban.

Wood was convicted of the 1989 murders of his estranged girlfriend Debra Dietz and her father Eugene Dietz.

In communications with his lawyers this year, Arizona officials said they would use a two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone to put him to death.

But they declined to provide further identifying information, including the name of the drug's manufacturer, citing a state confidentiality law aimed at protecting the drug makers from reprisal.

Export bans

In June, Wood sued the state, arguing the refusal to provide the information violated his right under the first amendment to the US constitution to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and asking for the execution be halted.

A US district court based in Arizona ruled against him. But on Saturday the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals barred the state from executing him until it provided the name and origin of the drugs to be used in his execution and the qualifications of the executioners.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Wood was convicted of the 1989 murders of his girlfriend and her father

"Wood has raised serious questions on the merits as to the positive role that access to lethal-injection drug information and executioner qualifications will have in the public debate on methods of execution," the judges wrote.

"We conclude that Wood has raised serious questions as to whether a first amendment right, in the context of a public execution, attaches to the specific information he requests."

The state of Arizona appealed to the US Supreme Court, the nation's highest, which on Tuesday ruled the execution could go ahead.

In the past several years there has been what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals described as a "seismic shift" in America's lethal injection system, as states have struggled to find the drugs they had long used to put convicts to death.

In 2010, the sole US manufacturer of sodium thiopental, a sedative used in lethal injections, stopped producing it. States switched to pentobarbital, also a sedative, but its Danish manufacturer Lundbeck began tightly restricting its distribution to prevent it being used in executions.

And in 2011, the UK imposed export bans on three common lethal injection drugs, pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride. In the same year, the EU restricted the distribution of sodium thiopental to nations that practise capital punishment.

States have experimented with other drugs since.

In April, Oklahoma tried to inject Clayton Lockett with a dose of midazolam, but the executioners were unable to find a suitable vein, the injection failed, and the execution was halted. Lockett died of a heart attack moments later.

And in January in Ohio, Dennis McGuire appeared to gasp, snort and choke for 25 minutes after he was injected with a two-drug combination of midazolam and hydromorphone.

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