PHOENIX – A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Arizona cannot execute a death row inmate without providing detailed information about the drugs intended for his lethal injection, a decision that prompted state officials to say they will take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The dispute centers on whether a man convicted of killing his estranged girlfriend and her father should have access to information the state of Arizona has refused to provide, and it comes amid nationwide scrutiny surrounding capital punishment and whether condemned inmates unduly suffer.
Arizona officials lost their attempt to overturn a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled recently that death row inmate Joseph Rudolph Wood, convicted in the 1989 shooting deaths, "raised serious questions" about whether he should have "access to lethal injection drug information and executioner qualifications."
The ruling marked the first time that an appeals court has delayed an execution based on the issue of drug secrecy, said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Arizona is among several states that refuse to disclose the supplier of their execution drugs, how or whether those drugs are tested, or details about the qualifications of the execution team.
Some of the most active death penalty states — including Texas, Florida and Missouri — have been the subject of similar lawsuits from virtually every death row inmate facing imminent execution over the past several months, but courts have rarely stepped in.
Wood, in winning the delay, argued that he had a constitutional right to know the withheld details about his execution.
Dale Baich, an attorney for Wood said his team is "looking forward to Arizona turning over the information that we requested."
"The 9th Circuit has correctly recognized the importance of the information that Joe Wood sought," Baich said.
Arizona attorney general's office spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, however, said the state will file an application with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to dismiss the ruling and allow prison officials to put Wood to death without any such disclosures.
It's not clear whether the high court will take up the case, but Dieter said it shows judiciary disagreement on the issue. "That is often an invitation for the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene," Dieter said.
If the Supreme Court does step in, death penalty experts say it's likely the appeals court decision will be overruled.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, of the 9th Circuit, dissented from the decision Monday that led to the state's planned Supreme Court appeal.
"I have little doubt that the Supreme Court will thwart this latest attempt to interfere with the State of Arizona's efforts to carry out its lawful sentence and bring Wood to justice for the heinous crimes he committed a quarter century ago," Kozinski wrote.
The process of lethal injections and whether inmates unduly suffer has come into focus several times this year.
An Ohio inmate in January snorted and gasped during the 26 minutes it took him to die. And an Oklahoma execution was botched in April as prison officials halted the process after noticing the drugs weren't being administered properly. The inmate died of a heart attack several minutes later.