As Emmanuel Hammond lay strapped to a gurney with lethal drugs seeping into his veins, witnesses to his execution could tell something wasn’t right. First he closed his eyes. But moments later, they fluttered open.
“Maybe two minutes in, his mouth kind of pulled way over to the side and then relaxed,” recalls his attorney, Sheri Johnson. It moved again, and he took two hard breaths. “To me it looked like pain,” Johnson says. “It looked like a grimace.” It was unlike other executions she’d witnessed, even one that took twenty minutes and required a second dose of lethal drugs. That inmate had closed his eyes and remained motionless a few seconds in. Hammond’s execution “was like nothing I have ever seen before.”
A few months earlier, in September 2010, another Georgia prisoner, Brandon Rhode, had died in a similar way. His mother, who at her son’s request did not attend his execution, was at a nearby truck stop waiting for it to be over. “When the pastor, Randy Loney, came back,” she told the Guardian, “he told me that Brandon had…maintained eye contact the whole time.” Pastor Loney’s account was supported by press reports, which stated that Rhode’s eyes stayed open until he was pronounced dead.
Hammond and Rhode were executed, like most death row prisoners, using a deadly combination of three drugs. The first, a barbiturate, is meant to sedate and anesthetize the inmate. The second, pancuronium bromide, causes paralysis. And the third, potassium chloride, stops the heart. For years, autopsies and witness descriptions have shown that the first drug, sodium thiopental, doesn’t always work; some prisoners have been conscious, paralyzed and slowly suffocating until the end. Eye movement is one sign that things have gone wrong. Dr. Mark Heath, a physician and anesthesiologist who teaches at Columbia University Medical Center, wrote after Rhode’s execution that “it is very unusual and surprising for a prisoner’s eyes to remain open after the efficacious administration of thiopental.” The implications were grim. “There is no dispute that the asphyxiation caused by pancuronium [bromide] and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium [chloride] would be agonizing in the absence of adequate anesthesia,” he wrote.
Concern that prisoners were being tortured to death was at the heart of the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case Baze v. Rees, which sought to decide whether lethal injection as carried out in Kentucky (and most death penalty states) was cruel and unusual punishment. The Court ruled that it was not, denying that lethal injections pose “a substantial risk of wanton and unnecessary infliction of pain, torture, or lingering death.” But since then, states have strayed from the process upheld in Baze, partly because of a nationwide shortage of sodium thiopental. Some have sought out dubious new sources of the drug. Others, increasingly, are trading it in for a different one. Nowhere has the process been transparent—and some states appear to have broken federal laws in their rush to execute. As states have tinkered with their lethal formulas, in Georgia the result has been exactly the kind of tortuous executions the Supreme Court deemed unlikely when it upheld lethal injection.