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  • The San Juan Daily Star

Death penalty researchers call 2022 ‘year of the botched execution’


Alabama’s lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala.

By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs


More than one-third of execution attempts in 2022 were mishandled, capital punishment researchers said late last week, describing the seven visibly botched executions that took place in three states as “shocking,” even as the total number of executions remained among the lowest in a generation.


In one of the most comprehensive annual examinations of the death penalty in the United States, the Death Penalty Information Center found that the number of executions this year, 18, remained significantly lower than even a decade ago, when more than twice as many death row prisoners were killed. As public support for the death penalty has waned, the number of death sentences and executions has largely been in decline since the late 1990s; in 1999, 98 people were executed.


But of the 20 execution attempts this year, seven were “visibly problematic,” including two that were ultimately abandoned, the researchers wrote, adding that 2022 could thus be considered “the year of the botched execution.”


Those cited included three high-profile cases in Alabama, where death chamber staff members cut open one man’s arm to insert an IV and, in two other attempted executions, were unable to insert IV lines before the men’s death warrants expired. The others were in Arizona and Texas, where officials struggled for some time before ultimately finding suitable veins. Alabama’s governor called for a temporary moratorium last month in carrying out the death penalty while the state’s protocols were investigated.


“As support for the death penalty has declined, we’ve been seeing more and more extreme conduct by the states that want to carry it out,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “And it’s been manifest in recklessness.”


While there have been a series of obstacles in recent years for states trying to carry out the death penalty — such as difficulty getting lethal injection drugs, and lawsuits over their use — many of the problems this year resulted from difficulties in accessing prisoners’ veins to administer the drugs.


Some politicians and prison officials have said that executions had to be carried out in a hurry after last-minute appeals from defense lawyers left little time before death warrants expired. Dunham noted that despite rising fears of crime — which have previously coincided with support for capital punishment — American support for the death penalty remains at one of its lowest points since the 1970s. A Gallup Poll from October found that 55% of Americans supported the death penalty for people convicted of murder.


In 37 states, the researchers said, the death penalty has either been abolished or not been carried out in more than a decade.


Last week, Oregon’s governor commuted the sentences of all 17 people on that state’s death row to life in prison without parole. The state had not executed anyone in 25 years, but the move by the governor, Kate Brown, a Democrat, removed the possibility that the people might one day be executed if the moratorium first imposed by her predecessor, also a Democrat, were lifted. She called the death penalty “immoral” and said she hoped the commutations would bring a measure of finality to victims’ families, who might otherwise be left in a state of uncertainty.


In Nevada, where the state has not executed anyone since 2006, the state Board of Pardons will discuss this week whether to commute the death sentences of all 65 people on Nevada’s death row to life in prison.


Of the 18 executions this year, Texas and Oklahoma each carried out five, followed by Arizona with three and Alabama with two. Oklahoma made headlines earlier in the year when the state announced that it would seek to execute 25 prisoners over a 29-month period. Executions in Oklahoma were halted in 2015 because of botched executions, and then later because of a lawsuit over one of the drugs used during lethal injections, but they have since resumed.


The report on Friday cited problems in trying to carry out executions in a range of states. In Arizona, prison officials had difficulty accessing a vein in a man who had long claimed he was innocent of killing an 8-year-old girl, and were able to do so only once the man himself suggested that they try to find a vein in his hand instead.


In Tennessee, the governor halted all executions until next year after the state failed to properly test lethal injection drugs, a revelation that led to the halt of an execution about an hour before a prisoner was to be killed.


In South Carolina, where officials had searched for alternatives after problems finding lethal injection drugs, a judge stopped the state from moving forward with executions by firing squad or electric chair, deeming the methods cruel and unusual.


Still, perhaps no state had as many high-profile problems as Alabama.


In issuing the temporary moratorium on executions last month, Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, said she did not believe that prison or law enforcement officials were at fault for the botched attempts. Instead, Ivey, a Republican, placed the blame on lawyers filing appeals for the prisoners as their execution dates neared, saying they left prison officials insufficient time to carry out the executions before death warrants expired.


Defense lawyers bristled at that claim, saying that their appeals often raised significant, new issues and that the state should have had time to carry out the executions if they were properly conducted.


In one execution that was carried out, in July, prison staff members in Atmore, Alabama, spent hours struggling to access the veins of Joe N. James. The preparations were hidden from the reporters and other witnesses who were allowed to watch the actual execution, but photographs from a private autopsy later showed that executioners had ultimately made an incision into one of his arms to access the vein, a procedure known as a “cutdown.”


Several months later, on Sept. 22, the state again struggled to insert an IV line into another man, Alan E. Miller, this time running out of time before his death warrant expired at midnight. Lawyers for Miller, who was convicted of murdering three men in 1999, said at the time that he was the only living execution survivor. Alabama recently agreed that the state would not execute him by lethal injection, although it left open the possibility of killing him with nitrogen hypoxia, a method he has said he would prefer.


A strikingly similar failed effort took place last month, when last-minute appeals were rejected by the Supreme Court late at night, leaving Alabama with about two hours to carry out the execution of Kenneth E. Smith. While officials were able to insert one IV line, they could not insert a second and determined that they did not have time to do so before midnight, calling the execution off.


“None of this should have happened,” said Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center. “But it happened over and over and over, which feeds into the growing public belief that states can’t do this right.”

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