The Alabama attorney general’s office has agreed not to seek a new execution for Doyle Lee Hamm, a death row inmate who experienced a botched lethal injection in February, Hamm’s attorney announced on Tuesday.
Hamm was sentenced to death in 1987 for killing a night clerk in a motel robbery. Today he is 61 years old and suffers from lymphatic cancer, carcinoma, and Hepatitis C. His cancer treatment, combined with his age and past drug use, have made his veins difficult to access. Bernard Harcourt, his lawyer, has long argued that lethal injection would be impossible, and two U.N. human rights experts called on Alabama to delay the execution to avoid what “may amount to torture.” But the state wanted to try, and on Feb. 22, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7–2 to let his execution proceed. Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
For several hours, executioners attempted to locate a usable vein, sticking needles all over his body and allegedly puncturing his femoral artery and bladder, causing blood to gush from his groin. He remained conscious the entire time. Eventually, the executioners gave up, and Hamm became one of only four men in 70 years to walk out of an American execution chamber. Shortly thereafter, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told reporters that “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.”
Alabama initially intended to attempt a second lethal injection. But Harcourt argued that another execution would violate the Constitution’s bar on “cruel and unusual punishments” and constitute double jeopardy, illegally placing him “in jeopardy of life or limb” twice for the same offense.
The Supreme Court has ruled that attempting a second execution does not automatically violate the Constitution. But it has permitted a do-over only in cases that involved an unexpected equipment failure rather than a state’s deliberate ignorance of probable complications. A “single, cruelly willful attempt” at execution, in contrast, may infringe on the inmate’s constitutional rights and prohibit the state from trying again. Harcourt asserted that Alabama had plenty of notice that Hamm’s lethal injection would fail but tried anyway, thereby subjecting him to “cruelly willful” torture. In doing so, Harcourt wrote, the state forfeited its right to a second execution.
Alabama may have decided that Harcourt’s argument was too strong to counter in court—or it may simply be eager to end this publicity nightmare as quickly as possible. (The terms of the settlement are secret.) Regardless, Hamm will now be allowed to live out his remaining years in prison, though Harcourt notes that he is severely traumatized by his botched execution. The prison will presumably have to resume treatment for Hamm’s large-cell lymphoma; he had been scheduled for surgery to remove a cancerous lesion under his left eye in December, but the state canceled the operation on the same day that it issued his death warrant. Thanks to Harcourt’s settlement, there will be no more death warrants in Hamm’s future.