Press Release

IACHR Expresses Deep Concern over Execution of Joseph Wood in the United States

July 25, 2014

Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is deeply concerned by the troubling information received on the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood on July 23, 2014, in Arizona, who reportedly remained alive for nearly two hours after the lethal injection process began. The Commission calls on the United States and the state of Arizona to conduct an independent and impartial investigation of the execution of Mr. Wood and to stay pending executions until the state’s execution protocol is fully reviewed.

According to publicly available information, during the execution procedure the federal public defender filed an emergency motion calling for reviving Mr. Woods. The defense attorney’s motion indicated that “[t]he Arizona Department of Corrections began the execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood III at 1:52 p.m. At 1:57 p.m ADC reported that Mr. Wood was sedated, but at 2:02 he began to breathe. At 2:03 his mouth moved. Mr. Wood has continued to breathe since that time. He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour. At 3:02 p.m. […] staff rechecked for sedation. He is still alive. This execution has violated Mr. Wood's Eighth Amendment right to be executed in the absence of cruel and unusual punishment.”

Mr. Wood was pronounced dead at 3:49 p.m., almost two hours after the execution procedure begun. One of the defense attorneys stated that Mr. Wood was executed with an experimental formula of drugs. According to publicly available information, before the execution Mr. Wood’s lawyers had unsuccessfully sought to force Arizona to name the manufacturers of the drugs used in the execution.

Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer made a public statement expressing her concern “by the length of time it took for the administered drug protocol to complete the lawful execution” of Mr. Wood and directed the Department of Corrections to conduct a full review of the process.

As part of its mandate to monitor the human rights situation in the United States and through its individual case system, the Inter-American Commission has received troubling information on numerous defects in several states’ lethal injection protocols in the United States. In particular, the IACHR has received complaints regarding the absence of meaningful federal oversight of the execution protocols and the fact that lethal injections are reportedly administered by individuals with no training in anesthesia. In several states, including Arizona, the type of drugs used as well as their source is not in the public domain. Further, as drug shortages have made it difficult for states to obtain the drugs used in lethal injections, some have turned to unknown sources, in particular, compounding pharmacies. Some states have also imposed secrecy on their execution protocols.

According to the Inter-American Commission’s jurisprudence, “the State has the duty to inform the person sentenced to death, in a timely manner, about the drug and method of execution that will be used, so he or she is not precluded from litigating the right to be executed in a manner devoid of cruel and unusual suffering.” In this respect, the IACHR has ruled that “in capital cases the State has an enhanced obligation to ensure that the person sentenced to death has access to all the relevant information regarding the manner in which he or she is going to die. In particular, the convicted person must have access to information related to the precise procedures to be followed, the drugs and doses to be used in case of executions by lethal injection, and the composition of the execution team as well as the training of its members.”

The Inter-American Commission condemns the way in which Joseph Wood was executed and reminds the United States of its international obligation not to expose persons under its jurisdiction to cruel and unusual punishment. The Commission calls on the United States and the state of Arizona to conduct an independent and impartial investigation of the death of Mr. Wood and to indefinitely stay pending executions until the state’s execution protocol is fully reviewed. The IACHR also urges all states that use the lethal injection as a method of execution, to disclose the drugs used, their source, the execution protocol, as well as the composition and training of the execution team.

The Commission reiterates the recommendation made in its report “The Death Penalty in the Inter-American Human Rights System: From Restrictions to Abolition” published in 2012, that States impose a moratorium on executions as a step toward the gradual disappearance of this penalty. While a majority of the member States of the Organization of American States has abolished capital punishment, a substantial minority retains it. In this regard, the Commission notes that the United States is currently the only country in the Western hemisphere to carry out executions.

The Inter-American Commission welcomes that eighteen states and the District of Columbia have already abolished the death penalty in the United States (Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin) and that some states have a moratorium imposed by the governor or the courts. The Commission encourages the state of Arizona to follow in the abolition or moratorium of the death penalty.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this matter. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in a personal capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 78/14