PHOENIX — In the wake of the July 23 execution of convicted murderer Joseph R. Wood III — who took nearly two hours to die after the start of his lethal injection procedure — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has ordered a review of the state’s execution process.

Wood gasped more than 600 times before he died in a state prison in Florence, Ariz., according to some accounts by witnesses, and he lived so long after receiving the lethal injection that his lawyers were able to launch an emergency legal appeal to halt the execution. According to The Guardian newspaper, a Catholic priest was present throughout the protracted execution, praying the Rosary.

But while the incident has focused national attention on the issue of execution by lethal injection and the problems associated with the protocols for administering such drugs effectively, Catholics involved with the issue note it was only the latest in a string of recent executions with similarities to Wood’s.

On Jan. 16, 2014, Dennis McGuire — convicted of raping and stabbing to death Joy Stewart, who was 30 weeks pregnant — was scheduled to die by lethal injection.

The first person to receive the previously untested combination of the sedative midozolam and the painkiller hydropmorphone, McGuire took more than 25 minutes to die, an unusually long time, after the lethal injection.

Father Lawrence Hummer, chaplain for the Chillicothe (Ohio) Correctional Institution since 2011, was with McGuire’s children while their father died an agonizing death.

“What I saw was a futile attempt to try and kill this guy,” said Father Hummer, who also is pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Chillicothe. “I saw an audible gasping and struggle to breathe. He was like a fish tossed up on the side of the bank gasping for air.”

The same month, convicted burglar and murderer Michael Lee Wilson of Oklahoma cried out that he felt his whole body burning as he was fatally injected with a controversial combination of drugs. In April, convicted murderer, rapist and kidnapper Clayton Lockett reportedly thrashed about in pain after being lethally injected with a new “experimental” drug combination. The execution was halted after about 20 minutes, only to have Lockett later die from a heart attack.


No Consistent Protocol

According to Cara Drinan, law professor at The Catholic University of America, these errors in executions further demonstrate the fact that state governments have no consistent protocol in carrying out capital punishment by injecting prisoners with lethal drugs. However, she noted, state governments have constitutional latitude to carry out executions even if they can sometimes go astray.

“The Eighth Amendment (in its allowance of capital punishment) realizes that there will be human error associated with this process,” Drinan said. “It states that due to the nature of the procedure, there is an inherent risk, and things will go wrong.”

And the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that human error does not imply cruelty — as in the “cruel and unusual punishment” that is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. In 2008, Kentucky death-row inmates Ralph Baze and Thomas Bowling brought a case against John Rees, commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Corrections, charging that their pending executions by lethal injection violated their Eighth Amendment rights. Specifically, they argued that the drugs to be used carried an unnecessary risk of inflicting pain.

In Baze v. Rees, the Supreme Court ruled that an “isolated mishap” in an execution would not violate the Eighth Amendment, because human error does not imply cruelty and does not indicate that the procedure used presented a “substantial risk of serious harm,” explained Notre Dame University law professor Richard Garnett.

But, said Father Hummer, “Cruel and unusual is not too far off from what I have experienced in the manner in which these guys are killed.”


Pro-Life in the Face of Death

In 1998, Vicki Schieber’s daughter Shannon was raped and murdered. Four years later, Troy Graves was arrested for the crimes. He is now serving a life sentence in Colorado. Vicki and her husband, Sylvester, were determined to prevent Graves from being sentenced to death.

“It was very, very difficult for us,” Schieber recalled. “At the time, [the] Philadelphia District Attorney's Office was set on giving Graves the death penalty. But this was, and still is, not part of our deeply held Catholic beliefs.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

“Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’” (2267).

In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a call to end the death penalty with their document A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.

“We reaffirm our common judgment that the use of the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances,” the document reads. “Our nation should forgo the use of the death penalty because the sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity.”

A 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners on behalf of the Death Penalty Information Center found that 24% of Catholics, compared to 33% of the general population, supported the death penalty when respondents were given a range of alternative punishments for murder. Fifty-eight percent of Catholics supported some form of a life-without-parole sentence for such offenders. 

But now there’s a new angle to the anti-death-penalty movement: Opponents are arguing that unregulated drugs used in executions put death-row inmates at a greater risk of pain and suffering.


The Protocol of Killing

The United States has used lethal injection in executions for more than three decades. In recent years, a number of federally approved pharmacies stopped selling pharmaceuticals to states for use in executions. States now are turning to compounding pharmacies that are not federally regulated.

In light of this, more than 25 Catholic organizations have united with Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), a pro-life organization that seeks to end capital punishment. They have asked the American Pharmacist Association (APA) to not participate in the execution business in any way, shape or form.

In a May 10 letter to APA’s president and board of trustees, CMN wrote, “We ask that you not only consider the ethical codes breeched when pharmacists use their training and tools to facilitate state-sponsored killings, but also consider the profound moral codes that call upon all of us to respect the sacred dignity of every God-given human life.” The letter also called on the APA to join fellow medical professional associations, “including the American Medical Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology and the Society of Correctional Physicians, that have banned their members from participating in executions.”

According to Karen Clifton, executive director of CMN, it is time for the APA to draft a membership policy regarding participation in executions.

“We are asking for this [statement], which would make clear the APA’s position as it applies to all of its pharmacists,” Clifton said in an interview with the Register. “Just as doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, we want pharmacists to develop a similar policy.”

Clifton said that, so far, they have received no response from the APA.

“We are going to approach this state by state,” Clifton explained. “We are touching base with the Catholic Pharmacists Association in hopes that they can get some action on this.”


Executions Kill Twice

Opposing the death penalty in no way suggests that activists condone the crimes committed by the convicted, says Schieber, who now serves as CMN’s education coordinator.

“Killing this man [Graves] is not going to bring our daughter back,” she said. “We hear so often that families of murder [victims] want closure through execution. So they wait 15 to 20 years with tremendous anger and revenge inside of them, which is, in a sense, killing themselves.”

But opponents of capital punishment say it’s not always easy to convince people — even Catholics — that opposing the death penalty is just another expression of the pro-life teachings of the Church.

“Loving our enemy and praying for the persecuted seem to fall on deaf ears,” said Father Hummer. “My parishioners have gotten some education [on the death penalty], but I wish more would understand the horror of this.

“Justice belongs to the Lord, not to those who have the best lawyers.”

Eddie O’Neill writes from Rolla, Missouri.