On the night of February 22, 2018, the state of Alabama attempted to execute inmate Doyle Lee Hamm, a 61-year-old who's spent the past 30 years on death row. However, after almost three hours and 12 puncture wounds, midnight was approaching and the death warrant was set to expire. Hamm left the execution chamber, bloodied and bruised, but alive.
Hamm's story is the latest controversy surrounding the use of the lethal injection. Although branded as a “medical procedure,” the high number of reports of “botched” executions in recent US history is raising questions about whether the current protocols are scientifically sound and ethically acceptable.
“This went beyond ghoulish justice and cruel and unusual punishment,” Bernard E Harcourt, Hamm’s lawyer and a professor of law and political science at Columbia University, said in a statement.
“It was torture.”
Doyle Lee Hamm was convicted for the robbery-murder of motel clerk Patrick Cunningham in 1987. Along with having a history of intravenous drug use, he has recently been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and basal cell carcinoma. His lawyers have argued that this meant his veins were too damaged to receive the normal lethal injection.
Alabama, therefore, opted to give Hamm a specialized execution protocol, which Hamm’s lawyers said was rushed and resulted in the “botched” execution.
“The IV execution team inserted needles multiple times on his left and right legs and ankles, each time forcing the needles into his lower extremities. At one point, the IV execution team turned Doyle Hamm over onto his stomach on the gurney, slapping the back of his legs to try to generate a vein,” Harcourt said in an update on Saturday, February 24.
After multiple failed attempts to insert a catheter into Hamm’s right groin, they called the execution off.
“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,” added Harcourt.
Commenting on the failed execution at a press conference, Jeff Dunn, Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner, told reporters: “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.”
The current execution protocol in Alabama varies and is not made publically available, however, they have been known to use the controversial drug midazolam in the past. This drug is used as a sedative to make inmates unconscious and two other drugs are administered afterward to paralyze and stop the heart.
Regardless of the ethical considerations involved in capital punishment, if execution by lethal injection is to be classed as a "medical procedure" then how the "patient" is treated should be considered. Critics of midazolam and other lethal injection drugs say that the current procedures are wholly unreliable and often results in unnecessarily prolonged and painful deaths.