How a Few Prisons are Turning Their Inmates into Human Guinea Pigs



Recently the State of Arizona held what may arguably be considered the most botched execution to ever take place in the United States.

On July 23, the execution of convicted murderer Joseph Wood lasted nearly two hours after Arizona’s Department of Corrections administered an experimental cocktail of lethal drugs that the state had never before been used.

At the beginning of the execution, everything was going according to plan: the drugs, midazolam and hydromorphone, were administered. Wood was sedated just before 2 p.m. But soon after, the execution turned into something akin to a medical experiment when the untested drugs began to cause the inmate to begin “gasping and snorting [for air] for more than an hour.”

A witness to the execution, Michael Kiefer, writing for Arizona’s The Republic stated, “I made a pencil stoke on a pad of paper, each time his mouth opened and ticked off more than 640, which was not all of them, because the doctor came in at least 4 times and blocked my view.”

“I’ve witnessed a number of executions before and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dale Baich, one of Wood’s attorneys, told The Washington Post. “Nor has an execution that I observed taken this long.”

Despite prior demands from Wood’s attorneys to release information about the drugs that would be used to execute Wood, Arizona never disclosed what they were and successfully fought through the courts to hide the source of the drugs.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) ordered the state’s Department of Corrections to conduct a review of the execution. She stated she was “concerned by the length of time” it took. However, she added, “One thing is certain, however, inmate Wood died in a lawful manner and by eyewitness and medical accounts he did not suffer.” Really?

Wood’s execution was the first time Arizona had tried that exact procedure to execute an inmate, but it was not the first time in recent history that an execution has gone horribly wrong.

A couple months ago, I wrote an article detailing a botched execution in Oklahoma. The state was forced to halt the execution procedure mid-stream when the unconscious inmate, Clayton Lockett, woke up, breathed heavily and strained to lift his head off the pillow. Soon thereafter, he fell into convulsions on top of the gurney. Forty minutes after the execution started, Lockett died of a massive heart attack.

Before that botched execution took place, it had been put on hold for several weeks by the Supreme Court of Oklahoma to determine whether the state was entitled to withhold information from Lockett’s lawyers about the untested cocktail of drugs to be used in the execution. Oklahoma wanted no one to know what the drugs were or their source. This concoction of drugs ultimately led to the botched execution, considered by many to constitute a cruel and unusual punishment of the prisoner.

Amazingly, Oklahoma proceeded with Lockett’s execution even after botching another one earlier this year. In January, it used untested drugs for the first time to kill Michael Lee Wilson, but that execution quickly turned into a torture scene when the Wilson said he felt his whole body burning. Remember – this execution was before the Lockett execution. So, the first time Oklahoma tried to execute someone they failed, and then they just decided they’d give it another shot using the same protocols – and failed again!

Even more amazingly, although Arizona saw how Oklahoma failed miserably (twice), it went along and did the exact same thing! How’d that turn out?

Many European drug producers that previously supplied our prisons with their lethal injection drugs have stopped selling them in the United States. Apparently these companies have functioning moral compasses.

Lately states have resorted to buying discount drugs from “compounding pharmacies.” These pharmacies are less regulated and their drugs are more likely to harbor impurities that can lead to torturous deaths such as Wood experienced.

Arizona and Georgia are so desperate for drugs needed to fulfill their execution needs they even resorted to illegally importing some of the only remaining leftovers of black market drugs from a compounding pharmacy called “Dream Pharma” – a company in West London that is still run out of the back of a dilapidated driving school.

States such as Arizona and Oklahoma have turned their prisoners into human Guinea pigs by subjecting them to what amounts to medical experimentation. Unable to access drugs historically used in executions, these states have knowingly bought drugs that had never been used before in executions. In an attempt to make sure that they can’t be held accountable for the protocols they use to execute death row prisoners, they have scrambled to pass secrecy laws to cloud the fact that they can no longer use federally regulated lethal injection drugs on their condemned inmates.

In fact, a majority of the thirty-two states that administer the death penalty refuse to name their execution drugs or their suppliers.

Instead of providing transparency to a process that administers the most serious punishment our country can legally deal, states such as Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma continue to operate on human beings in the shadows, where they won’t be held liable for torturing and murdering inmates.

Apparently, the courts are going to keep this going on as if what we are doing isn’t morally corrupt. And the American public doesn’t seem to care either – 60% of Americans still favor the death penalty for someone convicted of murder.



About Eric Bates

Eric received his B.S. in political science with an emphasis in international relations from Santa Clara University in 2012. Upon graduating, he traveled and worked for a non-profit in Central America. He is a religious viewer of Conan O’Brien and also loves traveling. Eric is attending San Jose State University's graduate school program to receive a M.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications. He can be reached at
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