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Arizona agrees to sweeping changes in execution protocol

Arizona will stop using a controversial sedative linked to botched executions in Oklahoma and Ohio when executing inmates, a lawyer for several prisoners on Arizona’s death row announced Monday — part of an agreement that will also see the state open up more of its execution procedures to scrutiny.

This agreement will help settle a lawsuit first brought by a group of death row inmates in 2014 — the same year Arizona officials brutally botched the execution of Joseph Wood, a convicted murderer who took nearly two hours to die, reportedly gasping throughout even as officials pumped him with 15 times the standard dose of the sedative midazolam. Arizona hasn’t executed any death row inmates since.


“Arizona has an unfortunate history of problematic execution practices and executions that raise great concern, but today the state is taking appropriate steps to decrease the risk that prisoners will be tortured to death,” said Dale Baich, one of the inmates’ attorneys, said in a statement.

The state’s new protocol bars the director of the Arizona Department of Corrections from taking certain actions mid-execution, like swapping out drugs or closing the curtains that allow witnesses to see into the execution chamber. The agreement also requires the state test the drugs before using them and bars expired drugs.

“Additionally, the witnesses will be able to view more of the execution process,” Baich added. “This increased access will provide better oversight and accountability. We are pleased that the state has made these changes and overhauled the protocol, some of the things we have been requesting since 2007, in order to reduce risks of pain and suffering during executions.”

The prisoners must still sign off on the settlement, but the lawyers expect to get their approval next week. The Arizona Department of Correction did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment.

While the Arizona settlement won’t apply to other states, it still represents a victory for anti-death penalty advocates. Not only will it diminish the secrecy that they say increasingly shields capital punishment from criticism and accountability, but it’s another blow against the drug midazolam, which experts say should not be used in executions because it often fails to fully sedate inmates, forcing them to endure “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“With midazolam, there’s even a question as to whether we can call it ‘botches’ [at this point],” Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham told VICE News earlier this year, shortly before Arkansas put inmate Kenneth Williams to death using midazolam. His lawyers maintain that Williams remained conscious during his execution, and are now fighting Arkansas in court to release the results of his autopsy.