Autopsy on executed killer complete in Pima County

Published: Jul. 24, 2014 at 6:26 PM MST|Updated: Oct. 16, 2014 at 6:26 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The autopsy on executed killer Joseph Wood has been completed by the Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess.

Hess says an autopsy must be performed to insure proper protocol was followed, the catheter was inserted into the proper veins and the drugs that were administered were the correct ones in the correct doses.

He says the proper procedures were followed but the drug toxicology reports won't be complete for four to six weeks.

It took Wood nearly two hours to be pronounced dead after being injected with a lethal dose of drugs.

There has been some question about why it took so long and whether the execution should have been stopped after it became apparent he was still visibly trying to breathe.

But the breathing, according to Hess, was agonal breathing which is not uncommon for a person who dies from an opiate overdose.

As for the two hours that it took Wood to die, Hess said "it's a respiratory depressant. People don't die immediately.

"I was not surprised he died from the drugs but I was surprised by how long it took," he said.

Whether that's common from this particular drug cocktail isn't known.

The state had been using different drugs in the past which established what was thought to be protocol, that the prisoner being executed would die in a particularly short window.

Past executions took less that ten minutes but these were different drugs minus a paralytic which might have eliminated the agonal breathing which appears to be a gasping for air.

An execution in Ohio recently used the same mixture of drugs and had a similar outcome so the one here should not have been totally unexpected.

The autopsy took two hours to complete which is about twice as long as a normal autopsy but in this case there was a lot of paperwork and tissue samples to be preserved.

As to whether Wood suffered or was in pain, "that's subjective.," Hess said.

Arizona is in the national spotlight. This time, it's centered on Wednesday's execution of a death-row inmate and how long it took him to die.

Joseph Wood was on death row for killing his estranged girlfriend and her father in Tucson in 1989.

Some witnesses say Wood gasped and snorted for more than an hour and a half after the lethal injection. The family of the victims say he was snoring. Prison officials say he was comatose and never in pain.

However, Wood's death took so long, the inmate's lawyers were able to file an emergency appeal, but he died during the discussions, nearly two hours after the procedure started.

It is the third "prolonged" execution in the U.S. this year. The others were in Ohio and Oklahoma.

Gov. Brewer has ordered a full review of the process. And, that is the right thing to do. You may or may not agree with the death penalty, but it is the law and this story has brought the debate to our full attention.

The state of Arizona needs to figure out what went wrong and what we'll do next. Arizona needs to look at a more "speedy" alternative before we even think about the next execution.

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