It was cold outside the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility on the morning of November 15, where some two dozen people formed a circle in the parking lot. They had traveled to Lucasville from various parts of the state, wearing heavy jackets and carrying handmade signs. A large banner read: “We remember the victims … BUT NOT WITH MORE KILLING.”
Inside the prison, officials were getting ready to kill 69-year-old Alva Campbell, convicted of murder in 1997. His execution was scheduled for 10 a.m. For weeks, Campbell’s lawyers had fought for a reprieve, warning that his severe health problems posed serious risks to carrying out lethal injection. Campbell had been diagnosed with an array of chronic illnesses in recent years, from cancer to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He used a walker and an external colostomy bag and relied on oxygen treatments four times a day. During a recent examination at the prison hospital, medical staff found he could not breathe lying down.
Of particularly grave concern were Campbell’s veins, which his attorneys repeatedly said were not viable for inserting an IV.
The execution had been delayed for nearly an hour that morning as staff reportedly examined Campbell’s arms and legs one last time. Then, just before 11 a.m., the protesters got word that witnesses were being led to the death chamber. The execution would soon be underway. One by one, they struck a large homemade bell, brought by Abraham Bonowitz, a veteran organizer with Ohioans to Stop Executions, and head of the new group Death Penalty Action. Bonowitz constructed the bell from a retired gas canister. Its sound was startlingly loud by design. After the last execution in Lucasville, relatives of the condemned man had said they could hear the bell inside the prison – it was comforting to know someone cared.
The protesters were solemnly waiting their turn to toll the bell when they saw people leaving the death house. It was 11:27 a.m. The execution appeared to be over. But moments later, a Columbus Dispatch staffer posted a tweet from inside the prison. “Media and pool are back,” he wrote. “Alva Campbell has not been executed. Apparently a vein could not be found.”
“He’s alive,” Bonowitz said cautiously. It was not clear what would come next. But before long, a flurry of phone calls and tweets confirmed what people were hoping: The execution had been called off.
In the parking lot, there were hugs and relieved laughter. Some looked pained, unsure what to feel. Whatever had happened was surely traumatic for Campbell and prison staff alike. As people got in their cars and headed home, state troopers began pulling away from the prison as well. Just before noon, the prison gates opened, and a black hearse drove past the parking lot where the remaining protesters stood. There was no body inside.
Campbell’s attorney, David Stebbins, approached the parking lot just before 1 p.m. “We had a difficult morning,” he said. He had watched as his client was stuck with needles four times in different parts of his body, the last time in his right shin. Stebbins and other witnesses could not hear the sounds from the execution chamber, but he saw his client throw his head back and cry out in pain. After some 25 minutes, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction head Gary Mohr halted the execution with the approval of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who denied clemency to Campbell just a week before. “That’s the only way they can stop it,” Stebbins said.
Stebbins only had a few minutes with Campbell before he was transported back to his death row cell at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, just north of Lucasville. “He did say it’s a day he’ll never forget,” Stebbins said. “I don’t think I’ll forget it either.” He did not know how long the reprieve would last. “We simply haven’t been told.”
But by that evening, Kasich had answered the question. Campbell’s new execution had already been set, for June 5, 2019.
The failed execution of Alva Campbell was historic — it was the third time a person has survived an execution in the United States since 1946. Yet it was the second time a man has left the gurney alive in Ohio in less than 10 years. The same thing happened at the Lucasville prison in 2009 after the attempted execution of Romell Broom. For two hours on September 15, 2009, execution team members tried and failed to find a vein in order to carry out his lethal injection. At one point, they took a 45-minute break, then tried again. It was only after 18 failed attempts to insert the IV lines that then-Gov. Ted Strickland stopped the execution. A prison spokesperson would later praise Broom for being “extremely cooperative and respectful” during the ordeal. “He actually attempted to help the team find an access point,” she said.
In fact, the episode was traumatizing for all those involved. At a subsequent hearing, members of the execution team testified anonymously about what happened. One woman — identified only as Execution Team Member 9 – had rushed out of the room after failed attempts to find a vein left blood streaming down Broom’s arm. Asked if she was OK, she said no. Broom described his own experience in a self-published book, co-written with a British writer in 2012. He described the pain of the repeated punctures; how he was told to relax; how one needle hit the bone in his ankle. “At one point there were 15 people in the room, all intent on executing me,” he wrote. “Some of them went out, but one guy in particular was really determined. He just kept on trying.” That night, Broom said, he dreamed that he was lying down while birds pecked at his body.
Broom, 61, remains on death row. He has insisted he is innocent, arguing that it would be cruel and unusual to try to execute him again.
For a person to survive execution is certainly rare. But in death chambers across the country, botched executions — and in particular, clumsy attempts to find a vein — are disturbingly common. Ohio has a particularly ugly track record. In 2006, Ohio executed a man named Joseph Clark, whose vein collapsed during the procedure. He lifted his head from the gurney and said, “It don’t work, it don’t work, it don’t work, it ain’t working,” according to one witness, later moaning, crying, and making guttural sounds. In 2007, Ohio’s execution team took so long to find a vein to kill 37-year-old Christopher Newton, he was given a bathroom break.
Perhaps most famously, in 2014 the state executed Dennis McGuire using the unprecedented combination of midazolam — the now controversial sedative — and the pain medication hydromorphone. State officials were warned in advance that the untested drugs put McGuire at risk of a suffocating death. Horrified witnesses watched as the 253-pound McGuire “repeated cycles of snorting, gurgling, and arching his back” and appeared to “writhe in pain,” according to a lawsuit filed by his family.
As Ohio has revised its execution protocol again and again, death penalty supporters have widely scoffed at the suffering of the condemned. Those on death row showed no such concern for their victims, after all. Campbell’s “special pillow” became tabloid fodder – the ultimate symbol of the coddled criminal. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed that a executions need not be painless to adhere to the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The justices have upheld execution by lethal injection, most recently ruling in Glossip v. Gross that a three-drug protocol using midazolam does not pose an intolerable risk of cruel and unusual punishment – despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Glossip significantly changed the rules for challenging executions by lethal injection. Under the ruling, lawyers for the condemned must offer a better, viable alternative to a state’s given protocol. “The problem with Alva is that if you have problems with vein access – which he does – any form of lethal injection is not going to work,” Stebbins told me on the eve of Campbell’s scheduled execution. “So you’re then forced to choose something outside lethal injection.” Campbell opted for the firing squad – a choice that made national news. But Ohio responded that it could not accommodate the request, because it has no law on the books authorizing that method of execution.
For lawyers and their clients, this is perhaps the most perverse outcome of Glossip. “We’ve got to suggest ways for the state to kill our client,” Stebbins said. “That’s really difficult. Clients don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to pick a way.” But it is what the law demands.
No relatives came to witness Campbell’s execution on Wednesday. By all accounts, he is estranged from his family. Like many on death row, his early childhood was marked by severe abuse and trauma. But even compared to the average death penalty case, Campbell’s clemency petition paints a truly harrowing life. “I see a lot of bad childhoods – horrible childhoods,” said Stebbins, who has defended capital cases for 35 years, “but I’ve never seen this level of violence directed at children.”
His opinion is echoed by an array of experts cited in the clemency petition, who describe the abuse Campbell endured as “shocking.” One psychologist likened his childhood home in Cleveland as a “hostage situation.” According to affidavits from Campbell’s sisters, their father was a vicious white racist who would beat their mother, who was black, unconscious, saying, “I should have never married a nigger.” He beat his children as well and raped his own daughters. Campbell’s sister Gwen recalls being forced to perform oral sex on her father. She said she believes he also sexually abused Campbell. “My father was a very sick individual.”
When Campbell was 10, his father pleaded guilty to incest and statutory rape of one of his daughters. He was sent to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Left with their mother, an alcoholic, Campbell and his siblings remained severely neglected. In February 1959, according to court records, the children showed up at a Cleveland bar begging for food. The police were called, and they were taken into state custody. Between foster homes and juvenile facilities, Campbell endured a new cycle of abuse and neglect.
If Campbell’s untreated trauma was no excuse for his crimes, it certainly helped explain them. The effect of early abuse can be catastrophic to a person’s social and psychological development. “What happened to Alva when he was growing up clearly destroyed him,” one expert opined in his clemency petition. By the time Campbell was 20, he had gone to prison for an armed robbery that left an Ohio patrolman wounded. Soon after his release, in 1972, Campbell shot and killed a man at a bar on Cleveland’s east side. He went to prison for 20 years. He was almost off parole in 1997 when he committed another armed robbery. On the day of his arraignment, Campbell feigned paralysis, arriving to court in a wheelchair. Then he overpowered the guard, carjacked a truck, and drove around for hours drinking beer while keeping the 18-year-old driver, Charles Dials, captive. He later shot Dials twice in the head.
Among those horrified by the murder was Campbell’s ex-wife, Sharol Kelly. She had met Campbell while he was in prison and married him before his release. They were together for 10 years. In the clemency petition, Kelly said that it was only after he left prison that she realized “how damaged Alva was.” The man she had known as kind and compassionate while he was behind bars became “a dysfunctional mess” after he got out. “It was like Jekyll and Hyde,” she said.
In a phone call two days before his scheduled execution, Kelly shared how she herself was victimized by Campbell. She had first met him in 1982, while working the night shift at St. Anthony Hospital in Columbus. It was a hard period in her life; she was going through a divorce and her oldest son of six was facing prison time for a drug offense. One night, Kelly recalled, a nursing assistant asked her, “ ‘Have you talked to the patient in 910?’ I’m like, ‘Well, no, not really.’ And she said, ‘Well, you should talk to him. He’s very nice.’”
The patient was Campbell. He was shackled to his bed, with a guard standing watch. He had been admitted to the hospital for foot surgery. Kelly found him handsome. But more importantly, she quickly realized he was someone she could talk to about things she could not easily discuss with other people. “I didn’t have to feel embarrassed about talking about my situation,” she said, “and I thought with my son going to prison, that maybe he could give me some insight.”
Over Campbell’s three-week stay at the hospital, she came to look forward to their conversations. Campbell told her that he was in prison for killing a man who had been molesting a young girl. “So, I thought, ‘Well, that’s still wrong, but yet it was for a good reason,’ if you can look at it that way.” After he was discharged, they wrote to each other – and eventually she went to visit him. She was struck by how many prison employees stopped by their table to chat, taking it as a good sign. As their relationship deepened, she would cry during her drives back home from their visits. “He was what I thought I needed at the time,” she said.
It wasn’t until Kelly picked him up on the day of his release that she realized the life she’d envisioned was not going to be possible. “I thought he’d come out and give me a big hug and kiss,” she said. Instead, when she reached out toward him, “he says, ‘Don’t touch me, don’t touch me.’ I said, ‘What?’” He explained that he had been in prison for too long. They never consummated their marriage.
Campbell only lived with Kelly for six weeks. He drank heavily and was emotionally abusive. He had previously been kind to her children, but now he was mean and dismissive. Kelly soon realized that much of what he had told her was a lie, including the story behind his crime. One day, Campbell announced he was going to live with a different woman. He told Kelly she was thinner and prettier than her. But he continued to ask Kelly for money and later for a place to stay, saying he was homeless. Kelly was not sure if she believed him. But she suspected he was addicted to crack.
In the years after Campbell was sent to death row, Kelly followed the developments in his case on the news. As his execution date approached earlier this year, “I could not believe the picture of him that was put on TV,” she said. He was unrecognizable.
Kelly considered trying to witness the execution. “It wasn’t because I would be glad to see him die,” she said. “That’s really the last thing I wanted.” As hurt and betrayed as she felt, she mostly felt sorry for him. She thought he should die knowing that somebody cared.
But in the end, she just wrote him a letter. “I needed to hear him say, ‘I’m sorry for using you’ or, you know, ‘mentally abusing you,’” she said. “I just needed to hear it, because it’s like, it was a story that wasn’t finished. There wasn’t an ending.”
The family of Charles Dials wanted an ending, too. His uncle and two siblings were at the prison in Lucasville on Wednesday to watch Campbell die. Whatever closure his execution might have offered, they did not receive it that day. Instead, they got another traumatic ordeal.
Outside the prison, others sought a different kind of closure. On the opposite end of the parking lot from where the anti-death penalty protesters stood, a local resident named Connie Weaver stood in sunglasses, holding a large sign reading, “Remember Bobby 1993.” It commemorated the Lucasville Prison riot almost 25 years ago, which left eight people dead, including a prison guard named Robert Vallandingham. Weaver’s husband was working as a guard at the time. She came to the prison on execution days to show her support for the death penalty.
The prison’s history was no less personal to Kwame Ajamu, who was there that morning with his wife. The new chair of the board of the exoneree-led organization Witness to Innocence, Ajamu was sent to death row in 1975 for a crime he did not commit. He was only 17 when he was convicted; his death sentence was commuted to life and he was released in 2003. But it would take another 11 years for Ohio to exonerate him. His co-defendant, Ricky Jackson, was released and exonerated in 2014, after almost 40 years in prison. It was Jackson who had asked presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last fall why she supported the death penalty when it send innocent people like him to die.
Ajamu had not returned to Lucasville since getting out. Looking back toward the prison, he said the experience was bittersweet. On the one hand, there was the satisfaction of standing outside the place where he’d once been condemned to die. But it also brought back traumatic memories. Ajamu found it ironic that the state would seek to kill a man in Campbell’s condition. “Here is a man who is so severely sick that if he laid down, he would literally pass away,” he said. “And someone in this paid facility in the State of Ohio actually took the time to figure out and devise a way to kill Mr. Campbell.” They call people on death row the “worst of the worst,” Ajamu said. But “to me, that is got to be the worst of the worst way of thinking.”
The other protesters ranged from college students who were new to protests, to retirees, like Carl Hyde, a doctor who had come to Lucasville many times before. Standing next to a banner featuring all the people executed since 1999, he pointed to the names and faces he remembered. He had corresponded with several of them, including Campbell, who asked him to send poems. Hyde described lethal injection as a travesty. “It’s unethical for a medical professional to participate in an execution,” he said. He was outside the prison when Ohio tried to kill Romell Broom. “We waited and waited and waited.” He remembered seeing the execution team leave the prison and return to try again.
“It’s just so wrong,” Hyde said. Quakers have a term, he explained. They call it a “leading.” It’s an internal pull, a moral drive to act. For him, that leading is protesting the death penalty until it is abolished. “I have to be here.”
Sharol Kelly was at home watching coverage of the execution that morning. She was flipping back and forth between two local channels when news of the reprieve came out. “It’s just really a weird feeling,” she told me on the phone the next day. “I know it had to be hard on the [Dials] family. And probably on Alva, too.” Kelly said the TV news reported that Campbell had shaken hands with the execution team and that he had tears in his eyes.
Kelly suspects Campbell will not live to see his next execution date. She is still wondering if he got her last letter. “I haven’t gotten an answer yet,” she said. “If I don’t, you know, in a week or so, I’ll write another letter.”