TUCSON — 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.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had put the execution on hold, saying the state must reveal information such as how it developed its method for legal injections and who makes the drugs that are used. It’s believed to be the first time an appeals court delayed an execution based on the issue of drug secrecy.
But state Attorney General Tom Horne’s office asked the nation’s top court to reverse that ruling, saying Wood can’t establish he has a First Amendment right to the details he is seeking about his pending death.
Wood argued he has a First Amendment right to the details and that the information is beneficial to the public. But the state’s attorneys wrote, “(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.”
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit put the execution on hold Saturday after finding Wood “raised serious questions” about whether he should have access to lethal injection 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 high court’s short order Tuesday afternoon said the appeals court’s judgment is vacated.
Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., said while many death row inmates made the same First Amendment argument as Wood, other appeals courts have shot them down.
Had the Supreme Court upheld the 9th Circuit’s judgment, “the whole country would likely be affected,” Dieter said.
“It might stop executions in many places,” he said. “It’s really an issue that is not just in Arizona but in all the states that are carrying out executions.”
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”
The 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.