Botched execution left Alabama inmate bleeding from his groin

Doyle Lee Hamm was stuck with needles for hours before the attempt was called off.

CREDIT: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
CREDIT: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

A death row inmate in Alabama was punctured with a needle 11 times and had begun bleeding from his groin when officials finally decided to stop his execution last month, the Montgomery Advertiser reported on Monday evening.

Doyle Lee Hamm, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for shooting a night clerk at a motel during a robbery, had been awaiting execution for three decades, as his lawyers worked to unravel the prosecution’s case against him. During that time, he developed large-cell lymphoma, spreading from his left eye to other parts of his body. While Hamm was initially given radiation to treat the cancer, his follow-up surgery in December was canceled, with the state claiming Hamm was in remission. They expedited his execution instead.

Advertisement

On February 22, Hamm’s brother and lawyer were instructed to wait outside Holman Correctional Facility while Hamm’s execution — scheduled for 6 p.m. — was carried out. By about 11:30 p.m., officials finally alerted the two that the execution had been halted “out of an abundance of caution.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem,” Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told reporters at the time. “…The only indication I have is that, in [the execution team’s] medical judgment, it was more of a time issue given the late hour.”

According to document’s Hamm’s legal team filed on his behalf with the U.S. District Court Monday, however, the execution was delayed after hours of “torture.”

Hamm, whose veins had deteriorated following years of cancer, hepatitis, and drug use, had previously argued through his lawyer that death by lethal injection would be nearly impossible and extremely painful. On the night of his execution, his prediction proved accurate: the team of executioners working on Hamm, who was strapped to a gurney, stuck him with needles for hours but were unable to find a vein. At a certain point, they flipped the inmate on his stomach and slapped the backs of his legs to find a vein, and when that was unsuccessful, they turned him over again and attempted to insert the needle through his groin. Only after Hamm began bleeding from his groin did officials stop the procedure.

Advertisement

Dr. Mark Heath, a New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital doctor who was retained by Hamm’s legal team to carry out medical examinations on him, stated afterward that he believed the execution team may have punctured Hamm’s bladder and femoral artery because he was “gushing” blood on the night of the execution and “he was urinating blood for the next day.” Hamm’s lawyer, Bernard Harcourt, wrote in Monday’s court documents that the death row inmate had hoped doctors would “get it over with” because the constant needle punctures were so painful.

“The doctor requested a new needle several times,” Harcourt wrote. “During this time Mr. Hamm began to hope that the doctor would succeed in obtaining IV access so that Mr. Hamm could ‘get it over with’ because he preferred to die rather than to continue to experience the ongoing severe pain.”

He continued:

At one point a large amount of blood began to accumulate in the region of Mr. Hamm’s groin. The blood soaked a pad or drape, and another one was applied. A man who had been watching from the foot of the gurney and talking on a cellphone began frowning. This man left the room several times, each time returning after a few minutes. The final time this man entered the room he stated that the execution was over.”

According to his lawyer, Hamm collapsed a short while later and had to be carried back to his cell.

Hamm’s botched execution is hardly the first of its kind in recent years.

In Ohio this past November, 69-year-old Alva Campbell’s execution was also called off after 30 minutes, after the execution team was unable to find a viable vein in which to insert the needle. Campbell, who lawyers say was suffering from “lung cancer, COPD, respiratory failure, prostate cancer, hip replacement, and severe pneumonia,” was also reportedly allergic to midazolam, the sedative used in Ohio’s lethal injection mixture. According to court documents, Campbell had previously argued that death by firing squad would be more humane, considering his medical conditions.

Campbell was found unresponsive in his cell on Saturday and died a short while later.

Other death row inmates have met even more gruesome ends: in 2014, Clayton Lockett, who was convicted in 2000 for the brutal assault and murder of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, died of a massive heart attack, 40 minutes into his scheduled execution. The officials at Oklahoma State Penitentiary reportedly inserted the needle incorrectly, and the poisonous concoction meant to kill him had instead pooled under the tissue near his femoral artery, prompting him to die a slow, violent death. At one point, several reporters claimed that Lockett had tried to rise from the table when he was supposed to be sedated.

Advertisement

Speaking with reporters following Lockett’s execution, President Obama said that the event should force everyone to “ask…some difficult and profound questions” about how the death penalty was applied.

Physicians and drug manufacturers alike have long debated the ethics of lethal injection as an method of execution, arguing that medical tools are not intended to be used to end human life.

The concoction used to execute prisoners traditionally involves three steps: a sedative like midazolam, a paralytic, and a final injection — sometimes potassium chloride — to stop the heart. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, at least eight states — Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington — have opted for a newer, one-step lethal injection procedure, in which the inmate is administered a fatal dose of a chemical like pentobarbital. Six other states have proposed plans to do the same.

The decision to move to a one-step lethal injection procedure is due at least in part to drug shortages as companies are increasingly opting not to produce drugs for use in capital punishment. “It’s against everything we stand for,” Lundbeck, the U.S. distributor of pentobarbital, said in a statement in 2011. “We invent and develop medicine with the aim of alleviating people’s burden. This is the direct opposite of that.”

Additionally, some experts argue that the use of pentobarbital, as well as similarly untested lethal injection cocktails like midazolam and hydromorphone, is unsafe.

Advertisement

“We don’t know how these drugs are going to react because they’ve never been used to kill someone,” Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, an expert on lethal injections, told Mother Jones in 2013. “It’s like when you wonder what you’re going to be eating tonight and you go home and root through your refrigerator to see what’s there. That’s what these departments of corrections are doing with these drugs.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that lethal injections are not administered by physicians themselves, but rather by EMTs or phlebotomists. While physicians are usually present at state executions, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Board of Anesthesiology, and the American Nurses Association all prohibit their members from actually carrying out any of the responsibilities other than checking the body afterward. Doing so would violate their medical code of ethics.

That lack of training has arguably lead to botched procedures, as in Hamm’s and Lockett’s cases. And while some death penalty proponents consider the bungled executions as a minor misstep, given the inmates’ criminal backgrounds, ethics professors and activists alike say is obscene and inhumane.

“This experience teaches us a deep fallacy in our justice system,” Hamm’s lawyer Harcourt wrote last month on a site where he updates followers on the latest developments in his client’s case. “When federal courts so eagerly get into the business of trying to find novel ways to execute a man, when the most august judges get their fingers bloody in this way, I think it does an injustice to justice.”