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Arizona Prisoner Waits in Excruciating Pain While Incompetent Executioners Fumble

by Eike Blohm, MD

A frail, elderly, wheelchair-bound prisoner had to assist the execution team killing him in Arizona on June 8, 2022. It was the state’s second execution since breaking an eight-year hiatus to kill Clarence Dixon the month before. [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.40.]

The most recently executed man, Frank Atwood, 66, was convicted of the 1984 kidnapping and murder of 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson in Tucson. Over three decades of incarceration, he maintained his innocence, exhausting every possible legal avenue of appeal. During his long stay on the state’s death row, his body grew so frail that he could not lie flat without excruciating pain. For Atwood, just being restrained to the execution gurney produced unnecessary suffering.

That’s because several of Atwood’s vertebrae had collapsed due to compression fractures. In a process mechanically similar to crushing a soda can, the vertical compression of his spinal column had trapped and smashed nerve roots exiting his spine. It was an incredibly painful condition, one exacerbated by movement. To limit his pain, Atwood spent his waking hours in a wheelchair. He could sleep only propped upright by blankets and pillows, with one leg drawn up close.

He filed suit against the state Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry (DCRR), moving for a preliminary injunction to prohibit his execution until a solution could be found that would minimize his suffering while strapped to the execution table. For its part, DCRR offered him a pillow.

The federal court for the District of Arizona denied his request on June 4, 2022. Quoting Glossip v. Gross, 576 U.S. 863 (2015), it said the Eighth Amendment does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death and that his rights are violated only when the risk of potential pain is “substantial when compared to a known and available alternative.” See: Atwood v. Shinn, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99966 (D. Ariz.).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision on June 7, 2022, concluding that DCRR’s proffered accommodation – the pillow – “preclude[d] a finding that their lethal injection protocol creates a substantial risk of severe pain.” See: Atwood v. Shinn, 36 F.4th 901 (9th Cir. 2022). The same day, the full Ninth Circuit declined to rehear the case en banc, and the following day the U.S. Supreme Court refused to issue a writ of certiorari to hear an appeal. See: Atwood v. Shinn, 35 F.4th1149 (9th Cir. 2022); and 142 S. Ct. 2809 (2022).

A witness to the execution called it “surreal.” The execution team had to hoist Atwood from his wheelchair onto the execution gurney and straighten out his body to facilitate restraining his arms and legs. Propped up on his pillow, Atwood was able to see the executioners repeatedly try and fail to insert an IV catheter. As it turned out, none of them had any significant medical training but were simply prison employees who had practiced a couple of times on a prosthetic arm.

Unable to place the IV, the execution team – with tremulous hands and perspiring faces – proposed attempting placement of an IV catheter into Atwood’s groin, where the femoral vein runs. But a person must be fully recumbent for intravenous access to that part of the body, a painful proposition for the prisoner. Instead, he guided his executioners to a vein in his right hand which he knew to be available from prior blood draws. After grimacing in pain for about 30 minutes – because the pillow did little to mitigate his pain from the forced positioning – the condemned prisoner finally had an IV that allowed the execution to proceed.

Additional sources: Arizona Republic, CBS News, Death Penalty Information Center

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