PHOENIX — 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 had 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.
Some of the most active death penalty states — including Texas, Florida and Missouri — have been the subject of similar lawsuits from virtually every death row inmate facing imminent execution over the past several months, but courts have rarely stepped in.
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.
For decades, the vast majority of executions in the U.S. were carried out through the same method, a three-drug protocol using pharmaceuticals purchased from major drugmakers.
But in the mid-2000s, courts began to consider whether lethal injection could violate the inmates' constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court eventually allowed lethal injection to proceed, but the issue led major drug companies — many of them based in Europe, where opposition to the death penalty is strong — to stop selling drugs for use in executions.
States have turned to compounding pharmacies, which make drugs specifically for individual clients and don't face the same oversight as the bigger companies.
Neither the states nor the compounding pharmacies want their names made public, citing harassment concerns. When an Oklahoma compounding pharmacy was outed as Missouri's supplier early this year, it was met with protests and unwanted publicity. The pharmacy stopped selling to the Missouri Department of Corrections.