PHOENIX — A judge is mulling whether to postpone the July 23 execution of
an Arizona death row inmate who is demanding details about the two-drug
combination that will be used to put him to death.
The arguments made Wednesday by inmate Joseph Rudolph Wood’s lawyers mark a new
legal tactic in death penalty cases. Wood’s attorneys want his execution delayed
until officials provide the information and argued his First Amendment rights
were violated by the state’s refusal to provide key details, such as the makers
of the drugs and how the state developed its method for lethal injections.
Two other Arizona death row inmates prevailed last year in making First
Amendment arguments, but the judge in Wood’s case said there’s no case law to
back up his lawyers’ claims that they are entitled to that information.
The legal dispute in Arizona is emerging as concerns over the death penalty
mount after a botched April 29 execution of an Oklahoma inmate and an incident
in January in which an Ohio inmate snorted and gasped during the 26 minutes it
took him to die.
The Oklahoma inmate writhed on the gurney after he was given a three-drug
combination. The execution was stopped after a doctor determined there was a
problem with an IV in the inmate’s groin. The Ohio execution was the longest
since the state resumed putting inmates to death in 1999.
Arizona prison officials intend on using the same drugs _ the sedative
midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone _ used in the Ohio execution. A different
drug combination was used in the Oklahoma case.
Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied executions for
more than two decades, said the First Amendment arguments by lawyers for
condemned inmates are a relatively new development that grew out of the problems
that states have faced in recent years in getting supplies of lethal injection
The arguments weren’t raised in the past because states used the same
three-drug combination and didn’t have problems getting access to the drugs,
until the maker of a sedative used in executions decided not to make it anymore.
Then, states started to shield the identity of the drugmakers.
“The issues have changed _ the dynamics have changed _ that require this
approach,” Denno said. “This wouldn’t have been necessary in the past.”
Lawyers for the state say there is no First Amendment right to the information
Wood seeks. “Wood alleges a right that doesn’t exist,” said Matthew Binford,
an attorney for the state.
Robin Konrad, an attorney for Wood, said her client has a First Amendment right
of access to non-confidential information connected to executions, which are
already open to journalists to attend.
U.S. District Judge Neil Wake posed skeptical questions about Wood’s arguments
that the access to the executions themselves extends to documents related to
such executions. “I don’t see anything that supports that,” Wake said.
In October, another federal judge ordered Arizona officials to provide more
information on the drug it planned to use in two death penalty cases. The judge
had ruled the inmates had established a First Amendment right to the
information, such as the drug’s manufacturer. Prison officials released the
information, and both inmates were executed shortly thereafter.
Wood, 55, is scheduled to be executed in the August 1989 shooting deaths of his
estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Eugene Dietz, at an
automotive shop in Tucson.
He watched arguments in his case Wednesday by video conferencing from the
prison where he is being held.
Wood and Debra Dietz had a tumultuous relationship in which he periodically
assaulted her. Wood fatally shot Dietz’s father in the chest. Dietz was on the
phone calling for help when Wood grabbed her around the neck and shot her in the
chest. Wood acknowledged his role in the killings but said they weren’t