PHOENIX – The first execution in Arizona in nearly eight years was smoother than the last use of the death penalty by the state, when a convicted prisoner who was given 15 doses of a combination of two drugs gasped hundreds of times for almost two hours.
The death of Clarence Dixon’s fatal injection Wednesday in Florence State Prison for his sentence for the 1978 murder of 21-year-old Arizona State University student Diana Bowdoin appears to have followed the U.S. execution protocol: Once the drug was injected, Dixon’s mouth remained open and his body did not move. He was pronounced dead about 10 minutes later.
But experts on the death penalty said Thursday that the approximately 25 minutes it took medical staff to put an intravenous intravenous into Dixon’s body was too long. The workers first tried and failed to inject intravenously into his left arm before being able to connect it to his right arm. They then chose access to a vein in his groin area for another IV line.
Deborah Deno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied executions for more than 25 years, said the executions should take seven to 10 minutes from the start of the IV introduction process until the prisoner is pronounced dead.
“This is a sign of despair (on the part of the execution team) and a sign of an unqualified executioner,” Deno said.
Before Dixon was killed, the last execution in Arizona took place in July 2014, when Joseph Wood was given 15 doses of a combination of two drugs for nearly two hours. Wood snorted repeatedly and gasped before he died. The trial dragged on for so long that the Arizona Supreme Court convened an urgent hearing during the execution to decide whether to suspend the proceedings.
Arizona has since changed its implementation protocols, agreeing to stop using one of the drugs – midazolam – which was injected into Wood. Instead, Dixon was executed by pentobarbital injection.
Wood’s death problems, combined with the state’s difficulty in finding sources to sell lethal injecting drugs, have led to nearly eight years of delays in executions in Arizona.
Similar problems have occurred before with medical workers trying to insert IV lines in convicted prisoners.
Alabama prison officials attempted to execute a prisoner by lethal injection in February 2017, but had to stop because paramedics could not find a suitable vein to connect the intravenous line. The prisoner died of cancer almost four years later.
The execution in November 2017 was canceled in Ohio after members of the execution team told the director of state prisons that they could not find a vein. A few months later, the prisoner died of natural causes.
Another fatal injection execution in Ohio was canceled in September 2009 after two hours when technicians could not find a suitable vein for a convicted prisoner who cried in pain while receiving 18 needle sticks. He died in prison in late 2020 from possible complications of COVID-19.
Experts on the death penalty say the difficulty in finding IV lines may be due to a combination of the physical conditions of convicted prisoners – such as previous IV drug use, medical problems related to hydration or the effects of aging – and untrained people who try to place IV lines. It is not known if Dixon, 66, has ever used IV drugs.
Michael Radelett, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder who has studied the death penalty for 40 years, said the enduring element of Dixon’s death led him to believe the execution had failed.
“I would call it a mistake, admitting that not everyone would agree. But things were not going well, “Radelet said.
In a statement Thursday, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-entry said Dixon’s execution was “flawless” and that it followed state laws and protocols.
Rick Romley, who headed the Phoenix Subway District Attorney’s Office, which charged Dixon with murder but left the post before being sentenced to death in January 2008, said the execution may have been more complicated than planned, but he did not consider it defective. He said that difficulties in finding veins to place IV lines are common for people both inside and outside the prison.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Romley said.
Asked if the difficulty of placing IV during executions violates protection against cruel and unusual punishments, Deno said he has a history of failed executions in the United States since the deaths.
“This (Dixon’s execution) may have failed, but it will not affect anyone’s rights under the Eighth Amendment” against a cruel and unusual punishment, Deno said. “The courts have not been sympathetic to circumstances like this.”
Amanda Bass, one of Dixon’s lawyers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
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The Arizona executioners took too long to insert IV
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