I should not regret a fair and full trial of the entire abolition of capital punishment.
Unvarnished Truths about the Death Penalty in the United States: Part II
David M. Reutter’s article, published in the December 2018 issue of Prison Legal News under the title, “Alabama Prisoner in Failed Execution Attempt Will Not Face Another,” detailed the grotesque attempt by the state of Alabama to execute one of its death row prisoners. On February 22, 2018, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) did its very best to execute death row prisoner Doyle Lee Hamm, who was convicted of the execution style murder of Cullum hotel clerk Patrick Cunningham during a robbery in 1987. Hamm was represented by Columbia Law School professor Bernard Harcourt. Harcourt clearly warned the ADOC that it would not be possible to execute Doyle Hamm by lethal injection, due to his inadequate and inaccessible veins. Because of a history of extensive drug use and chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma cancer and carcinoma, Hamm’s veins were collapsed and compromised. Two United States Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, agreed with this assessment and voted against the administration of the death penalty by lethal injection in this case. Because the majority of the justices voted in favor of the execution, it proceeded as planned.
This is the detailed report of the attempted execution of Doyle Lee Hamm. At 9:00 pm on February 22, two state attendants dressed in scrubs entered the execution chamber at Holman Correctional Facility and stood on each side of Hamm, who was strapped tightly into a gurney. According to attorney Bernard Harcourt, who witnessed the debacle, the state employees’ actions included “sticking needles into his flesh and bones, pushing and pulling them out repeatedly, trying the surrounding tissue for over thirty minutes, causing excruciating pain” to Doyle. The employee failed five times to find a suitable vein to administer the legal drugs. Following this, a second set of executioners attempted to accomplish what the first set were unable to. One carried an ultrasound device. According to Reutter, she “lathered gel on Hamm’s groin while her companion inserted multiple needles into his groin and pelvis.” Harcourt stated that these 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.” At 11:30 pm, after 2 ½ hours of repeated, painful needle probing failed to locate even one usable vein, the ADOC finally pulled the plug on its disastrous execution attempt. At a later news conference, Jefferson S. Dunn, Commissioner of the ADOC, attempted, under extraordinarily challenging circumstances, to put the best possible spin on the events. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Unfortunately, Reutter’s article did not reveal how the Commissioner characterized the State of Alabama’s diligent execution efforts.
However, physician Dr. Mark Health did. In his March 5, 2018 medical report following his post-execution examination of Doyle L. Hamm, Dr. Health discovered 11 puncture wounds on his “lower extremities and groin.” Hamm told Dr. Health he wanted to die and “get it [the execution] over with,” because the puncture wounds were so excruciatingly painful. Attorney Bernard Harcourt recorded his observations in a blog post. “This went beyond ghoulish justice and cruel and unusual punishment,” he wrote. “It was torture…because it was entirely avoidable; it was also deliberate in its barbarism.” Harcourt stated that “the cruelty of what happened to Hamm that night is shocking, but consistent with a long tradition of barbaric executions in Alabama.” Bernard Harcourt concluded his blog comments with these statements. “The task of finding usable veins – in this case, on a 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.”
In a country long famous for being tough on crime and severe in its punishments, regardless of the fairness of the legal proceedings or the guilt of the convicted defendants, defense attorney Bernard Harcourt of Columbia University witnessed and described a failed execution attempt that was extreme and shocking, even by American standards. After detailing the nightmarish scenario his client was forced to endure, even after a clear warning had been issued declaring that the lethal injection would not work for the very reasons the state failed, Harcourt was left to speculate about what the Eighth Amendment constitutional standard of “cruel and unusual punishment” means. Is it cruel to force a condemned prisoner to endure 2 ½ hours of repeated puncture wounds to his arms and groin in an attempt to execute him? Considering that Doyle Lee Hamm, aged 61, was only the fourth person in U.S. history to survive an American execution, it certainly qualifies as “unusual.” Since executions are considered the “ultimate punishment,” it appears to the Court Jester that the relentless, repeated attempts of the State of Alabama to carry out the state sanctioned killing of Doyle Lee Hamm covered all three prongs of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Although Doyle Lee Hamm received no monetary reward in a recent confidential settlement following his state and federal litigation, the State of Alabama agreed never to attempt to execute him again. If the litigation had been unsuccessful it is somewhere between probable and extremely likely that the Alabama Department of Corrections would have implemented the classic American adage: “If at first you do not succeed, try, try again.”