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Alabama Prisoner in Failed Execution Attempt will Not Face Another

by David M. Reutter

In March 2018, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) agreed not to set another execution date for death row prisoner Doyle Lee Hamm. The settlement resolved a lawsuit that followed a failed attempt to execute Hamm, 61, on February 22, 2018.

Hamm was sentenced to die for the execution-style murder of Cullman hotel clerk Patrick Cunningham, which occurred during a 1987 robbery.

In the seven months that preceded the attempted execution, Hamm’s attorney, Columbia Law School professor Bernard Harcourt, warned ADOC officials that Hamm had no accessible veins. Harcourt even proposed an alternative method of execution by oral lethal injection, but the ADOC refused.

Years of drug use, as well as chemotherapy following a February 2014 diagnosis of large-cell lymphoma cancer and B-cell carcinoma, had left Hamm with deeply compromised veins and abnormalities in his lymph nodes. As a result, Harcourt warned that an attempt at intravenous lethal injection would amount to cruel and unusual punishment in Hamm’s case.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor agreed, but they were the minority who dissented to the Court’s denial of Harcourt’s request to stay the execution – a decision handed down the same day the failed attempt took place.

At around 9:00 p.m. on February 22, two men dressed in scrubs entered the execution chamber at the Holman Correctional Facility and assumed positions on either side of the gurney to which Hamm was strapped. They worked on Hamm’s legs, “sticking needles into his flesh and bones, pushing and pulling them out repeatedly, trying the surrounding tissue for over thirty minutes, causing excruciating pain,” Harcourt said.

After five failed attempts at finding a vein, two more executioners entered. One had an ultrasound device. She lathered gel on Hamm’s groin, while her companion inserted multiple needles into his groin and pelvis. A doctor appointed by a federal court had already determined that Hamm had abnormal lymph nodes in the right side of his groin, but the executioners tried to find a vein there anyway.

“[T]he executioners likely punctured his bladder or femoral artery, causing a large hematoma and bruising down his leg; deep, long-lasting pain in his groin, blood in his urine, a severe limp, and a lymphatic infection,” according to Harcourt.

At 11:30 p.m., after 2½ hours of trying, the executioners had found no usable veins and the execution was called off. Hamm’s death warrant was set to expire at midnight. During a later press conference, however, ADOC Commissioner Jefferson S. Dunn said of the botched execution attempt: “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.”

A March 5, 2018 medical report was prepared by Dr. Mark Heath, who examined Hamm after the aborted execution and found 11 puncture wounds on his lower extremities and groin. The experience was so painful that Hamm told Heath he wanted to die and “get it over with,” just to end the repeated needle punctures.

“This went beyond ghoulish justice and cruel and unusual punishment,” Harcourt wrote in a blog post. “It was torture.” He added that “because it was entirely avoidable, it was also deliberate in its barbarism.”

As the result of a confidential settlement agreement, Hamm resolved his state and federal litigation over the incident and Alabama will not try to execute him again. His claim for monetary damages was dropped.

Since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there have been 1,483 executions in the states that exercise capital punishment as of October 2018. Of those, all but 175 were via lethal injection.

Hamm joins a small group of just four prisoners who have walked out of an execution chamber – only two of whom are still alive. One is Romell Broom, whose 2009 execution attempt in Ohio ended after a two-hour search for a suitable vein proved fruitless. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.42].

Broom also fought a second execution attempt, but lost his battle when the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that inserting a tube in a vein merely constitutes preparation for an execution, which doesn’t begin until “lethal drugs flow through the tubes” – thus a second search for a vein would not place Broom in double jeopardy. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Broom’s appeal of the ruling; he has been rescheduled for execution in June 2020.

Harcourt wrote in his blog that “the cruelty of what happened to Hamm that night is shocking, but consistent with a long tradition of barbaric executions in Alabama.”

He added, “The task of finding usable veins – in this case, on a cancerous, frail, and prematurely aged body – is now revealed as merely the latest chapter in this ghoulish history. I fear that this country has slipped into casual brutality and callous habits of mind, by which we are used to such punishments, unable to judge what is ‘cruel and unusual’ about them.” 

Sources: CNN, NBC News, The New York Review of Books, Montgomery Advertiser, www.al.com