Last Thursday the state of Alabama tried and failed to execute Doyle Lee Hamm, a prisoner who has spent more than half his life on death row for a murder committed in 1987. The botched execution attempt, which lasted hours and left Hamm covered in blood, was one of three lethal injections scheduled in the United States that day. Its gruesome outcome has horrified criminal-justice advocates across the country, who see this execution as yet another blatant violation of the Constitution’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.
According to Hamm’s attorney, Bernard Harcourt, the two-person execution team stuck needles in Hamm’s legs half a dozen times, but were unable to locate a surface-level vein. They then moved on to Hamm’s groin, which they stabbed another half-dozen times. In the process, they may have punctured his bladder and femoral artery—Hamm was gushing blood as the execution proceeded, and he urinated blood for most of the following day, Harcourt reported. At the urging of the state employee who was there, the execution team gave up just before midnight, worried that Hamm’s death warrant would expire.
Harcourt, a Columbia law professor who has represented Hamm since the two men met in 1990, describes the process as “torture,” and there is certainly every indication that the multi-hour execution attempt was cruel, harrowing, and painful. Hamm was “remarkably stoic” and “emotionally mature” as the date of his execution drew nearer, the lawyer said, but when the two men saw each other after the botched execution, Hamm was “traumatized,” shaken up and clearly still in pain.
Hamm’s botched execution is the latest in an expanding list of execution attempts gone horribly wrong (think Clayton Lockett and Joseph Wood, both in 2014, along with many others). But the likely reason for the failure adds a disturbing twist to the tradition. In addition to a history of drug use that makes surface-level vein access difficult, Harcourt says that Hamm has lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system that causes his nodes to swell, blocking access to veins in his groin. After Hamm was diagnosed in 2014, he underwent radiation therapy to remove a large tumor from behind his left eye, but it is not clear that he received any treatment since. Multiple independent examiners have observed swollen lymph nodes on his body since then.
Well before the date of the execution, Harcourt began pleading with the court to deliver the execution chemicals orally, but the court dismissed his concerns as unfounded. In recent weeks, Harcourt hired Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist affiliated with New York Presbyterian Hospital, to evaluate Hamm, and he said an execution would be unlikely to succeed. At Harcourt’s request, the court then appointed its own doctor, who noted the inflamed lymph nodes in Hamm’s right groin—the very area the executioners punctured half a dozen times—but concluded that “[they would] not impede venous flow.” One vein in particular, he went so far as to declare, would be a “piece of cake.”