Jurisprudence

Botched Executions Aren’t New—but Americans Finally Seem to Be Noticing Them

2022’s bungled lethal injections follow a long history. At last, though, they’re affecting the death penalty’s public support.

A needle featuring lethal injection drugs next to a pair of handcuffs on a wooden table or countertop
Recent botched executions have fit into a convincing story of a system in disarray. Reuters Marketplace - Video Elephant

Last week, the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that collects data on capital punishment, released its year-end report: “The Death Penalty in 2022.” Among other things, it dubbed 2022 “The Year of the Botched Execution.”

According to the DPIC, seven of this year’s 20 execution attempts (two were called off before being completed) “were visibly problematic—an astonishing 35%.” It attributed these difficulties to “executioner incompetence, failures to follow protocols or defects in the protocols themselves.”

The year’s seven bungled executions highlighted lethal injection’s longstanding problems. It has turned out to be America’s least reliable and most problematic execution method.

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The DPIC report, with its tagline about 2022’s botched executions, made headlines in news outlets around the country and the world.

But there is nothing new about what they reported.

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Botched executions have always been part of America’s death penalty story and have been especially prevalent during the past century and a quarter. In fact, there have been several years during that time period when the annual total of botched executions was as great or greater than this year’s.

The largest number occurred more than a century ago in 1900, when 14 of that year’s 99 executions were botched. In 1905, 12 of 156 executions were botched. Eight out of 46 executions were botched in 2010, and in 1999, 7 out of 31.

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Yet, despite these numbers, botched executions were often written off as inevitable and inconsequential. No matter how gruesome they were or how often they occurred, they never seemed to make much of a dent in support for the death penalty. As a 2009 Los Angeles Times story noted, “Public opinion had been little affected by … cases where executions were botched.”

But as news coverage of the DPIC report suggests, that may be changing. Today, botched executions are playing an important role in prompting a reconsideration of the death penalty across the country.

Before seeing why that is happening, let’s first look at 2022’s botched executions.

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Three of them occurred in Alabama, three in Arizona, and one in Texas. And each of them received extensive media coverage. All of them resulted from difficulties in finding usable veins in the inmates execution teams were seeking to kill. In each instance, they struggled to secure the IV lines needed to carry the lethal drugs.

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Executioners can have problems like those when the condemned have been intravenous drug users and their veins are collapsed. Some are overweight, making it hard to find a vein. Because lethal injection is a complex procedure, considerable skill can be required from execution teams. But the personnel charged with carrying it out generally lack the training and ability needed to carry it out humanely. They also aren’t equipped to respond effectively when they run into trouble.

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This year’s botched executions bear out these challenges.

The first of them took place in May when Arizona prison officials took “25 minutes to insert IVs into Clarence Dixon’s body, eventually resorting to making an incision and inserting an IV into Dixon’s groin.” The following month, Arizona ran into similar difficulties when it executed Frank Atwood.

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Alabama’s problems began with the July execution of Joe Nathan James. It took more than three hours between the initiation of efforts to set the execution IV and the time when James died.  James was repeatedly jabbed with needles and suffered multiple incisions as the execution team tried to insert an IV line. His was the longest botched lethal-injection execution since the method came into use in the U.S. in 1982.

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In September and again in November, Alabama had to call off executions because of difficulties setting IVs.

And on Nov. 16, officials struggled to insert the IV needles during Arizona’s execution of Murray Hooper and during Texas’ execution of Stephen Barbee, subjecting each of them to torturous and inhumane treatment.

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But botched executions are not unique to lethal injection. All told, more than 3 percent of the executions carried out since 1900 have been botched, and every decade has seen its share of execution problems.

Those problems have plagued each execution method used in this country in the past century and more—including hanging, the electric chair, the firing squad, and the gas chamber.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hanging was America’s execution method of choice.

From 1900 to 1993, when Westley Allan Dodd became the last person executed by hanging in the U.S., governments across the country hanged 2,721 people.

Tying a rope around a man’s neck in a slipknot, passing that rope over the bough of a tree, and hoisting him toward the sky seemed to be relatively simple. Hanging was supposed to work by breaking the neck of the condemned.

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Yet hangings went awry. Ropes ripped apart as prisoners lurched abruptly downward, and drops were often too short to kill. Often the condemned slowly strangled and sometimes they were decapitated.

The electric chair also had its share of problems.

Since the method was first used in 1890, electrocutions have been plagued by mechanical breakdowns. In one infamous case, Louisiana’s 1946 execution of Willie Francis, the amount of electricity that reached him was not sufficient to kill him. His execution had to be stopped and rescheduled.

More than four decades later, Jesse Tafero caught on fire during his electrocution in Florida.

Although lethal gas was once touted as a progressive, humane, and painless method of execution, the gas chamber did not live up to these promises. It produced its own horrors.

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Like the electric chair, the gas chamber had many mechanical breakdowns. And death in the gas chamber often was neither quick nor pretty. Inmates fought hard to keep breathing, convulsed, retched and jerked, and struggled, sometimes for 10 minutes or more.

Finally, there is the firing squad, which in the U.S. has only been used 34 times since the start of the 20th century. While some contend that it is the most reliable execution method, inmates who are shot often don’t die quickly, and bleed to death.

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This history of execution mayhem, until recently, hasn’t stopped the news media from downplaying or excusing even the most glaring failures. For decades, such horrors were blamed on the negligence of particular people or unavoidable acts of God.

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But this began to change in 2014.

As law professor Corinna Barrett Lain observes, that year marked a watershed in the way Americans thought about botched executions. During 2014, there were four botched executions, including those of Clayton Lockett and Joseph Wood.

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The news media began to take notice and raise questions about whether there was something wrong with the whole execution process. Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain captured the changing national mood when he called 2014’s botched executions “torture.”

Since then, botched executions have fit into a powerful and convincing story of a death penalty system in disarray. Now they seem less like random mishaps and more like a glaring sign that that system is broken.

We know that many people have been falsely convicted of capital crimes they did not commit and that death sentencing is marred by racial bias. And, as the DPIC report makes clear, we can’t even get things right when we try to put people to death.

All of this helps explain why public support for capital punishment, which was between 60 and 80 percent until 2016, has recently declined and now hovers between 54 and 56 percent.

Throughout American history, support for the death penalty has been sustained by the belief that when someone is put to death, the government and citizenry are in a position of moral superiority. Today, failures throughout the death penalty system, including botched executions, expose the hollowness of that hope.

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