It took nearly two hours for the state of Arizona to execute Joseph Wood, convicted of killing his 29-year-old girlfriend and her father in 1989 at their family-owned Tucson body shop.

The July 23 botched execution, during which witnesses describe Wood as snorting and gasping for air until he died, has ignited a national debate on the legitimacy of the death penalty. Witnesses to executions in Ohio and Oklahoma earlier this year relayed similar accounts.

“We’ve all known for a long time that the death penalty is arbitrarily applied, unfair, and risks the execution of innocent people,” said Dan Peitzmeyer, president of Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona. “Now it’s becoming frighteningly clear that the lethal injection protocol is broken too.”

The organization called for a “complete, thorough, and transparent review of [the] botched execution and a halt to all executions until the court has reviewed the state’s procedure.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has promised to review the process.

“One thing is certain, however,” the governor said in a statement. “Inmate Wood died in a lawful manner, and by eyewitness and medical accounts, he did not suffer. This is a stark comparison to the gruesome, vicious suffering that he inflicted on his two victims — and the lifetime of suffering he has caused their family.”

What the Church teaches

The traditional teaching of the Catholic Church allows for capital punishment “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2267) .

St. John Paul II, in his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” called such cases “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Most governments have the capacity to protect the public from such aggressors without resorting to capital punishment.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has consistently opposed the death penalty. “No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so,” they wrote in “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.”

“The only time we can take a life is in self-defense,” said kathleen-domingo, Life Coordinator of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. She noted that, unlike abortion and euthanasia, the Church teaching on the death penalty isn’t a moral absolute.

Working to abolish the death penalty, she said, is a key piece of the Life, Justice and Peace Office.

“It is a part of the dignity of the human person,” she said. “We believe in redemption and we believe people should have that chance.”

The Office of Restorative Justice, a ministry of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, seeks to “supplant the retributive model of justice with a restorative one, which reconciles and heals persons, communities, faith and society at large.”

The death penalty grabbed headlines in California this summer after a federal judge took issue with capital punishment in the state. The July 16 ruling, which called the system dysfunctional and arbitrary, marks the first time a federal court has found California’s death penalty unconstitutional. 

This decision also comes as “the death penalty is losing favor with the general public and elected officials,” according to a statement from Death Penalty Focus, a California-based organization committed to the abolition of the death penalty. 

Finding closure

Some death penalty advocates argue that it gives a victim’s family closure, but Peitzmeyer of Arizona Death Penalty Alternatives doesn’t think so. Joseph Wood killed Debbie Dietz and her father, Gene. Their family members didn’t seem to find closure after his execution, Peitzmeyer said.

“I don’t believe he was gasping for air. I don’t believe he was suffering. It sounded to me like was snoring,” Jeanne Brown, a relative, told the Associated Press.

“You don’t know what excruciating is,” she said. “What’s excruciating is seeing your dad laying there in a pool of blood, seeing your sister laying there in a pool of blood. This man deserved it. And I shouldn’t really call him a man.”

Peitzmeyer said that life without parole would have spared the family heartache — and the state money. With all the appeals, it’s less expensive to put someone in prison for life than it is to execute them.

“The anger these people have carried around for years, it came out in their voices. I feel sorry for them. It’s a terrible, sad thing,” he said. “Each appeal that comes up, the scab is picked off, year after year. But the closure only comes when they’re able to forgive.”