US Supreme Court clears way for execution of Arizona prisoner
An Arizona prisoner convicted of murdering an 8-year-old girl in 1984 is due to be executed Wednesday in what would be the state’s second execution since authorities began carrying out the death penalty in May after a hiatus of almost eight years.
Frank Atwood, 66, is set to die by lethal injection at Florence State Prison for his murder conviction in the murder of Vicki Hoskinson, whose body was found in the desert. She had disappeared months earlier after leaving her home in Tucson to drop a birthday card in a nearby mailbox.
If the execution is not stopped by legal action, Atwood will be the second Arizona prisoner to be put to death in less than a month. The execution of Clarence Dixon last month ended a halt to executions in Arizona, blamed on the difficulty of obtaining lethal injection drugs and criticism that a 2014 execution in the state was botched.
Death penalty opponents fear Arizona could begin executing a steady stream of prisoners languishing on death row, but state officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their future execution plans. No other executions have been scheduled so far in Arizona, which has 112 prisoners on death row, including Atwood.
In recent weeks, judges have pushed back against attempts by Atwood’s lawyers to delay the execution. He maintained that he is innocent.
Atwood’s lawyers argued that Atwood’s degenerative spinal condition would make it excruciatingly painful for him to be strapped on his back to a stretcher, where prisoners lie while they receive lethal injections. Lawyers also questioned whether state officials met the requirement that the lethal injection drug expiration date must fall after the execution date.
Atwood’s attorneys also told the Supreme Court in court papers that the aggravating factor that made his crime punishable by death had been applied invalidly. He was convicted in 1975 in California of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14 and convicted of murdering Vicki in 1987. Judges have rejected this legal argument in the past.
Prosecutors claimed Atwood was trying to postpone his execution indefinitely through legal maneuvers, saying his pain would be lessened by propping him up with a pillow on the stretcher, which has a reclining feature. Atwood can continue to take his spinal painkillers before the execution and will be given a mild sedative before he begins, prosecutors said.
Authorities said Atwood kidnapped Vicki, whose remains were discovered in the desert northwest of Tucson nearly seven months after she disappeared. Experts could not determine the cause of death from the remains, according to court records.
Arizona also has a gas chamber and inmates are allowed to choose between that and lethal injection, but he refused, leaving him to die by lethal injection, the state’s default method of execution.
Although he did not choose the gas chamber, Atwood’s attorneys challenged Arizona’s deadly gas proceedings.
They said Atwood had the right to choose between constitutional methods of execution and suggested the state replace its deadly hydrogen cyanide gas with nitrogen gas because nitrogen would produce painless deaths. . Arizona prosecutors responded that nitrogen executions were “never tried and untested”.
Atwood’s lawyers said the state’s lethal gas protocol calling for the use of hydrogen cyanide gas – which was used in some past US executions and by the Nazis to kill 865,000 Jews in the Auschwitz concentration camp alone – is unconstitutional and would produce excruciating levels of pain during executions.
Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming are the only states with decades-old lethal gas enforcement laws still in effect. Arizona, which carried out the last execution in a gas chamber in the United States more than two decades ago, is the only state with a functioning gas chamber.
In recent years, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama have passed laws allowing executions with nitrogen gas, at least in certain circumstances, although experts have said this has never been done and that no state had established protocols that would allow them.
Dixon was executed on May 11 for his murder conviction in the 1978 murder of Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University.
His execution was criticized by death penalty experts because it took authorities around 30 minutes to insert an IV into his body to administer the deadly drug and 10 minutes after that to die.
They said executions are expected to take seven to 10 minutes from the start of the intravenous insertion process until the prisoner is pronounced dead.
The execution team first tried unsuccessfully to insert an IV into Dixon’s left arm before they could connect it to his right arm. They then made an incision in his groin area for another IV line.
Dixon’s execution was the first to take place in the state since the July 2014 execution of Joseph Wood, who received 15 doses of a combination of two drugs over nearly two hours.
Wood sniffled several times and gasped before dying. His lawyer said the execution was botched.
Billeaud reported from Phoenix.
Jonathan J. Cooper and Jacques Billeaud, The Associated Press