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Lethal injection and Arizona's history of execution

Posted: 5:08 PM, May 10, 2022
Updated: 2022-06-08 13:22:59-04
Washington state Supreme Court declares death penalty unconstitutional, citing racial bias
Clarence Dixon

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Frank Atwood, 65, will be executed on June 8th. He is the second Arizona death row inmate put to death since 2014. The last, Clarence Dixon , convicted in the 1978 murder of Arizona State University student Deana Bowdoin, happened on May 11th of this year.

Frank Jarvis Atwood is convicted of killing 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson. The young girl was riding her bike when she was abducted and killed. Her body was discarded in the desert, after which Atwood ran to Texas where he was arrested. Hoskinson's body would be discovered nearly half a year after her death by a hiker.

Atwood, seen below, had previously served a sentence for sexually assaulting a 7-year-old boy in California.

Atwood was sentenced to death over 35 years ago on May 8th, 1987. He is set to be executed by lethal injection at 10 A.M. on June 8th at Florence State Prison.

Frank Atwood.png

Lethal Injection's Early History
In 1887, New York physician J. Mount Bleyer released Scientific Methods of Capital Punishment. As proof that the more things change the more they stay the same, Dr. Bleyer's piece describes how the state of New York has reached out to medical professionals to find a humane way to execute those accused of capital crimes.

"The taking of human life by process of law has ever been regarded as a necessary exercise of the right of self-defence naturally vested in society, and an indispensable means of providing for the security and well-being of all its members: nevertheless there has arisen in recent times a strong feeling of opposition to the theory and practice of legal retaliation, as far as the death penalty is concerned, and in particular against the bungling and barbarous method of capital execution in use from time immemorial in England, and thence derived to America — death by strangulation, or by hanging." ~ Dr. Bleyer
J. Mount Bleyer (Scientific Methods of Capital Punishment)

Bleyer proposes a number of methods for executing criminals: Of most note is "death by morphine injection." Using a hypodermic syringe, a lethal dose of the opium derivative morphine is introduced to the bloodstream in two courses. The first would put the person being executed to sleep. The second dose would then be injected while the subject is asleep and stop the heart within a half hour. Bleyer champions this method as painless, free from "horrible displays" and a reduction to the drama that could be found in hangings. He also finds it more cost efficient; no longer needing to erect a gallows, all an executioner needs is a couch, a hypodermic needle and a drug that doctors were handing out like candy for nearly every pain (see, "the more things change" above).


The concept of lethal injection was not adopted — but it did see widespread use during Nazi Germany's "T4 Euthanasia Program". You'll recall in my previous discussion of capital punishment, Nazi Germany is well-known for murdering millions of Jewish people using gas. But throughout Hitler's reign, lethal injection was increasingly used as a means of killing those "unsuited to live." That included the elderly, the mentally ill and the emotionally distraught. The directive called these "a mercy killing."

This extended to children as well. Parents with mentally or physically handicapped children were encouraged to send those kids to clinics — where they would be murdered through lethal injection or starvation. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "conservative estimates suggest that at least 10,000 physically and mentally disabled German children perished as a result of the child 'euthanasia' program during the war years."

The first to die was five-month-old Gerhard Ketschmar. The baby was severely disabled and his father considered him a monster. When local doctors refused to put him down, the father petitioned directly to Hitler, who would send his personal physician, Karl Brandt, to kill the baby. It is believed the child was killed by lethal injection.

Nazi Germany would create a hierarchy of physicians and psychiatrists who would champion the continued murder of those the Third Reich found unwanted. This would eventually lead to the systematic, mass murder of innocent people through gas.

Lethal Injection in America
Texas was the first state to administer lethal injection. Charles Brooks Jr. was given the death sentence in 1978, a year and a half after he and an accomplice murdered a mechanic at a used car lot. His execution in 1982 marked a milestone in American capital punishment. From then on, lethal injection would be used in around 1,100 executions.

Arizona used the gas chamber until 1992, when voters decided to replace it with lethal injection. The first Arizona inmate killed by this method was John George Brewer, executed in 1993 for murdering his girlfriend and engaging in necrophilia following the murder.

A lethal injection procedure should take five minutes altogether. Two minutes after the final injection, the person should die.The process is simpler than that of the gas chamber, and on paper, more humane. The prisoner is strapped onto a gurney and the drugs then administered. Most states use a three-dose method. The first dose is an anesthetic, putting the prisoner to sleep. The next is a muscle relaxant, paralyzing voluntary muscles and causing suffocation. The final drug is potassium chloride — which causes cardiac arrest.

Arizona, according to an execution procedures document from the Department of Corrections, offers two choices of a one-drug course. The first is pentobarbital, the second is sodium pentothal. Arizona was found in 2010 to have obtained execution drugs improperly. Pentobarbital was then used until 2013, when the drug was no longer sold to prisons for executions.

Luzdelia Caballero spoke to former Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer, who broke multiple stories regarding lethal injection and witnessed some as well, back in April. She said that ABC15 in Phoenix filed a number of public records requests to find out who supplied the drug used in lethal injection.

Kiefer showed the KGUN 9 sister station public records he obtained, showing that the Department of Corrections "spent $1,500,000 to buy [1,000 doses of] the basic active ingredient in pentobarbital, used for pet euthanasia and executions." That purchase was made in 2020.

Clarence Dixon, lethal injection and Arizona's history of execution

Lethal Injection After Joseph Wood
Joseph Wood III was found guilty of the 1989 shooting and killing of both his ex-girlfriend Debbie Dietz and her father, Gene Dietz.

In 2014, he was executed for his crimes in a case that was a rallying point for those against capital punishment, and the termination of executions in the state, at least until now.

Kiefer was witness to the execution of Wood. He says at first, things were going well, the IV lines went in easily.

"They don't usually," Kiefer said. "Arizona is one of three states that will surgically cut a catheter into a condemned man's groin after failing to find veins in the arms or hands, a process used in nine of the past 14 executions."

The drug cocktail used in the execution of Wood had been used before, Kiefer noted, in two executions that were described as going on too long.

Wood's execution — would take nearly two hours.

"It was death by apnea. And it went on for an hour and a half. I made a pencil stroke on a pad of paper, each time his mouth opened, and ticked off more than 640, which was not all of them, because the doctor came in at least four times and blocked my view." ~ Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer
Michael Kiefer, The Arizona Republic

Kiefer told ABC15 they administered Wood 15 injections during that timeframe.

Clarence Dixon, executed in May, took a shorter time to die. The medical team,according to the Associated Press, had a difficult time finding a vein to administer the drugs. Because of that, the aforementioned groin incision was made. The entire process took 25 minutes.

Frank Atwood and the Future of Lethal Injection

Back to the present: Frank Atwood's lawyers have continued to sue the state Department of Corrections to postpone or cancel the execution, citing the immense pain Atwood would feel due to the physical position he would be put in during the lethal injection proceedings. Atwood has a degenerative spinal disease and being laid down on the table would be cruel. The state has said it could use cushion wedges and adjust the angle of the table to relieve some of that pain.

Just as the refurbishment of the Florence State Prison gas chamber stoked the ire of advocates against capital punishment, the return of prisoner executions this week again shines a spotlight on the debate of whether those who commit the most heinous of crimes deserve to be killed, whether they deserve more humane treatment, and whether the cost to taxpayers is truly worth it.

Expect that debate to become an increasingly prevalent subject in Arizona political and criminal discourse throughout the year.


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Sean Newgent has been with KGUN9 since January of 2020 and is Good Morning Tucson's executive producer. He graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in broadcast journalism. He is a critic and cultural commentator. Share your story ideas and important issues with Sean by emailing