TUCSON, Ariz. – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed an Arizona execution to go forward amid a closely watched First Amendment fight over the secrecy surrounding lethal injection drugs in the country.
The court ruled in favor of Arizona officials in the case of Joseph Rudolph Wood, who was convicted of murder in the 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged girlfriend and her father. The state plans to execute him Wednesday.
Wood, 55, argued he has a First Amendment right to details about the state's lethal injection method, the qualifications of the executioner and who makes the drugs. Such demands for greater transparency have become a new legal tactic in death penalty cases in recent months.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had put Wood's execution on hold, saying the state must reveal the information. That 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, other appeals courts have shot them down. But the Supreme Court has not been receptive to the defense lawyers' latest arguments, ruling against them each time the transparency issue has come before the justices.
Had the Supreme Court upheld the 9th Circuit's judgment, "the whole country would likely be affected," Dieter said.
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.
Wood's case highlights scrutiny surrounding lethal injections after several controversial executions, including that of an Ohio inmate in January who 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.
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.
In the Wood case, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit put the execution on hold after finding Wood "raised serious questions" about whether he should have access to the drug information and executioner qualifications. Arizona appealed to the full 11-member court but was denied a rehearing, then appealed to the Supreme Court on Monday.
"(The) Ninth Circuit has enjoined a state from carrying out a lawful execution so that the inmate can pursue litigation unrelated to the lawfulness of the execution," the state's attorneys wrote.
The high court's short order Tuesday afternoon didn't delve into the issue but simply said the appeals court's judgment is vacated.
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."