Last week was a really bad one for America’s death penalty. Over the course of just two days, Nov. 16 and 17, four people were supposed to die by lethal injection, and three of those executions were badly botched.
Never before in American history have so many executions gone awry in so short a time period.
Albert Einstein allegedly once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” By that standard, the continued use of lethal injection is simply insane.
An execution is botched if it does not adhere to standard operating procedure or to the governing regulations for putting someone to death. And botched executions are nothing new in this country.
From 1890 to 2010, 3 percent of all American executions were botched. And no method of execution was immune from such problems.
Hangings went wrong when the condemned slowly strangled or when they were beheaded. Electrocutions were botched when inmates caught fire in the electric chair. Executions by firing squad were messed up when the shooters missed their target. The gas chamber produced its own parade of horrors. Death by asphyxiation was seldom as quick or painless as its proponents promised.
And lethal injection—adopted with great fanfare in 1977 by the state of Oklahoma and touted as the most humane execution method—has proved to be the least reliable of all. From 1977 to 2009, more than 7 percent of all lethal injections were botched.
Since that measurement in 2009, things have only gotten worse, as last week’s ghastly developments show.
The first of those occurred on Nov. 16 during Arizona’s execution of Murray Hooper, who was convicted of murdering two people in 1980, but whose guilt was questioned amid police misconduct allegations.
Witnesses at his execution report that execution team members took more than 25 minutes to successfully insert the IV needed to carry the lethal drugs. As a report in AZCentral put it, witnesses saw them “attempt and fail to insert IVs into both of Hooper’s arms before finally resorting to inserting a catheter into Hooper’s femoral vein near his groin.”
Arizona’s execution protocols state that a “femoral central line” shall only be used “if the person inserting the line is currently qualified by experience, training, certification or licensure within the United States to insert a femoral central line.”
But Arizona’s secrecy laws make it impossible to know if a qualified technician was involved in Hooper’s execution.
We do know that as Hooper was repeatedly being jabbed with needles, he asked members of the execution team, “What’s taking so long?” He also said to the people witnessing his execution, “Can you believe this?”
Hooper’s was the third Arizona execution this year. And in each one of them the execution team struggled to insert intravenous needles.
These problems are attributable to the fact that members of Arizona’s execution teams have little experience or training with IV placement before they have to do it during a lethal injection. One retired corrections officer described their preparation by saying, “A medical consultant taught them to practice on a prosthetic arm, before they eventually practiced on one another.”
The second of last week’s botched executions occurred when Texas put Stephen Barbee to death. Barbee had confessed to murdering his ex-girlfriend and her child in 2005, though he later recanted that confession, arguing the he gave it under police coercion.
According to the Texas Tribune, “Within minutes of being strapped on the gurney, an IV was inserted into his right hand […], but it took another 35 minutes for an additional line to begin flowing in the left side of his neck.”
Inserting an IV into the neck is hardly standard operating procedure in lethal injection executions.
And, as the Tribune notes, the hour and a half it took to kill Barbee is “much more time […] than is typical in Texas.” Even prison spokesperson Amanda Hernandez acknowledged the difficulties the execution team encountered during Barbee’s execution. As she put it, “It took longer [than usual] to ensure he had functional IV lines.”
As is the case in Arizona, execution team members in Texas are not well trained, and they are often uncertain about what procedures they are supposed to follow.
In April of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents from the Texas Department of Corrections that expose the extent of those problems. As the ACLU notes, those documents show that some execution staff are “not trained” and “reveal a global lack of understanding about execution procedures generally.”
Just one day after last week’s botched executions in Arizona and Texas, Alabama had to halt the execution of Kenneth Smith after officials spent an hour stabbing him with needles in a failed attempt to set intravenous lines. (Smith was convicted in 1996 of a 1988 murder; in sentencing, the jury voted 11–1 to give him life in prison without parole instead, but the judge overruled and ordered the execution.)
Smith was strapped to a gurney for four hours while the state waited for the final resolution of his legal appeals. Once they were resolved, execution team members tried again and again to set the necessary IV lines.
As the Montgomery Advertiser reports, “They punctured ‘several’ locations on his body with needles. Ultimately, they were able to establish only one of two necessary intravenous lines before attempting a central line procedure […] which is the alternative method for gaining IV access in Alabama’s redacted execution protocol.”
Insertion of an IV line into a central vein is a complicated procedure that is usually done by a surgeon or an interventional radiologist, neither of which would have been present at Smith’s execution.
The failure of Miller’s execution follows what happened in September, when Alabama had to call off Alan Miller’s execution. There, too, staff encountered problems with IV placement.
But lethal injection’s problems cannot be cured simply by providing better training to those who must administer it. Problems are endemic to a method of execution that is complicated and dependent on unreliable drugs and drug combinations. And they are compounded because state execution protocols do not effectively regulate what happens in the execution chamber.
At the dawn of the lethal injection era, death penalty supporters hoped that they had finally found a solution to the problems that had plagued other execution methods. One of the Oklahoma legislators who first proposed it promised that death by lethal injection would be accomplished with “no struggle, no stench, no pain—just a quick, merciful snuffing out of life.”
Last week, Americans were again reminded how profoundly this method has failed to live up to its promise of painlessness or mercy.
This grim history makes it clear that, as Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University School of Medicine and death penalty opponent, argues, lethal injection “creates a circus of suffering.”
It is time for this country to put an end to that circus, and the incompetence and cruelty that accompanies it.