FLORENCE, Ariz. - The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Arizona to carry out its third execution in the past year Wednesday following a closely watched First Amendment fight over the secrecy surrounding lethal injection drugs.
Joseph Rudolph Wood, 55, was scheduled to be put to death at the state prison in Florence amid new scrutiny nationwide over lethal injections after several controversial executions.
Wood's lawyers used a new legal tactic in which defence attorneys claim their clients' First Amendment rights are being violated by the government's refusal to reveal details about lethal injection drugs. Wood's lawyers were seeking information about the two-drug combination that will be used to kill him, including the makers of the drugs.
A federal appeals court ruled in Wood's favour before the U.S. Supreme Court put the execution back on track. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision marked the first time an appeals court has acted to delayed an execution based on the issue of drug secrecy, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
The 9th Circuit gave new hope to death penalty opponents. While many death row inmates have made the same First Amendment argument as Wood, the Supreme Court has not been receptive to the tactic. The court has ruled against them each time the transparency issue has come before the justices.
States have refused to reveal details such as which pharmacies are supplying lethal injection drugs and who is administering them because of concerns over harassment.
Wood was sentenced to death for killing Debra Dietz and her father, Eugene Dietz, in 1989 at the family's automotive shop in Tucson.
Wood and Dietz had a tumultuous relationship in which he periodically assaulted her. Dietz tried to end their relationship and got an order of protection against Wood.
On the day of the shooting, Wood went to the auto shop and waited for Dietz's father, who disapproved of his daughter's relationship with Wood, to get off the phone. Once the father hung up, Wood pulled out a revolver, shot him in the chest and then smiled.
Wood then turned his attention toward Debra Dietz, who was trying to telephone for help. Wood grabbed her by the neck and put his gun to her chest. She pleaded with him to spare her life. An employee heard Wood say, "I told you I was going to do it, I have to kill you." He then called her an expletive and fired two shots in her chest.
Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general's office, said the agency had no comment on the Supreme Court ruling but will issue a statement after Wood's execution.
Wood's attorney, Dale Baich, said, "The secrecy which Arizona fought tooth and nail to protect is harmful to our democracy because it prevents the public, the courts and the condemned from knowing if executions are carried out in compliance with all state and federal laws."
Wood has one more appeal for a stay of execution pending before the 9th Circuit, Baich said. The habeas corpus challenge to his conviction and sentence will be decided by Wednesday.
Arizona has executed 36 inmates since 1992. The two most recent executions occurred in October.
Two recent executions in other parts of the country have helped revive the death penalty debate in the U.S.
An Ohio inmate in January snorted and gasped during the 26 minutes it took him to die. In Oklahoma, an inmate died of a heart attack minutes after prison officials halted the process of his execution because the drugs weren't being administered properly.
The fight over the Arizona execution has also attracted attention because of a dissenting judge's comments that made a case for a firing squad as a more human method of execution.
"The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos. And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising," wrote Alex Kozinski, the 9th Circuit's chief judge. "Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful — like something any one of us might experience in our final moment."
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