On the evening of Feb. 22, the state of Alabama spent two and a half hours in a grisly attempt to execute 61-year-old Doyle Lee Hamm, who is dying of cancer and has been on death row for the past 30 years.
After the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the execution to proceed, Hamm was stabbed at least a dozen times with needles in his ankles, legs and groin in an unsuccessful effort to find a vein to inject the drugs to kill him. As Hamm writhed in pain, bleeding all over the table, the execution was finally called off just before midnight. It wasn’t stopped because of the horror of what transpired, but because the death warrant only authorized his killing that day and it was about to expire.
“This was a bit of butchery that can only be described as torture,” wrote Hamm’s attorney, Bernard Harcourt. “The IV personnel almost certainly punctured Doyle’s bladder, because he was urinating blood for the next day. They may have hit his femoral artery as well because suddenly there was a lot of blood gushing out.”
Hamm became one of the few inmates to walk out of an execution chamber — just the fourth since 1946 — but the state hasn’t backed off. A federal judge will hold a hearing in March to review the execution attempt and decide whether to permit prison authorities to try again.
“I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem,” Jeff Dunn, Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner, told reporters, shortly after the execution was called off.
Hamm was diagnosed in 2014 with lymphoma, a cancer that causes your lymph nodes to swell. He also has basal cell carcinoma. An examination by a doctor from Columbia University Medical Center in September 2017 concluded that Hamm had no usable veins and that “the state is not equipped to achieve venous access in Mr. Hamm’s case.”
At one point in the court hearings that led to the attempted execution, Harcourt told the judge that if he ordered the execution, he should order the state to give the chemical poison orally. The judge refused.
Hamm was convicted of shooting a motel clerk to death in 1987 and has been sitting on death row ever since. While arguing for the death penalty at his trial, prosecutors said a robbery Hamm supposedly committed a decade earlier showed he was a serial criminal, but now there is evidence that robbery never happened.
Botched executions have occurred in other states, including in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma, where injection of the drug midazolam to render inmates unconscious has resulted in prolonged agony.
In November, state of Ohio officials had to halt the execution of Alva Campbell, 69, after failing to find a vein to inject him with the lethal drugs. Campbell suffered from cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and couldn’t breath lying down. So prison authorities purchased a wedge-shaped pillow to prop him up on the gurney to be able to kill him. Campbell died March 3 in his death row cell, prior to the new execution date Gov. John Kasich had set for him.
In recent years opposition to the death penalty has risen, and the number of executions has declined. In 2017 there were 23 executions nationwide, compared to 98 in 1999. Illinois, Connecticut, New Mexico and Maryland have recently abolished the death penalty. Over 20 drug companies have prohibited their products from being used for lethal injections, making it harder for authorities in some states to put anyone to death.
According to polls by Pew Research Center and Gallup last year, 40 percent of the U.S. population now opposes the death penalty, the highest figure in 44 years.