As the white van rolled toward the death house at Holman Correctional Facility last Thursday night, 57-year-old Danny Hamm began to sweat. The vehicle was emblazoned with the logo of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Two uniformed officers guarded the passengers inside. They drove through a series of sally ports and pulled up to the execution chamber, stopping just short of the red door. Parked in front was a large black coroner’s vehicle. “I don’t bite fingernails,” Hamm said, “but mine was down to my quicks.” Any moment, he would be escorted out of the van and led inside to watch his brother die.
In January 1987, Hamm’s older brother Doyle was arrested for fatally shooting a night clerk, Patrick Cunningham, during a motel robbery. He was swiftly convicted and sentenced to death. A lawyer from New York had helped keep him alive for three decades, uncovering serious flaws in his case, including mitigating evidence the jury never heard. Like many who face execution, Doyle and Danny Hamm had grown up in a deeply dysfunctional household – one of the 12 siblings described it as “constant hell all the time.” As Doyle Hamm aged on death row, his brothers and sisters started passing away. By 2018, almost all of his siblings were gone.
Bernard Harcourt, Doyle Hamm’s longtime attorney and a Columbia University law professor, knew better than to be optimistic. Still, “there were moments when I thought that the courts would actually stop the execution,” he said. Hamm, 61, had large-cell lymphoma; the cancer had spread from his left eye to other parts of his body. After providing radiation, the state insisted the cancer was in remission and prioritized his execution over further treatment. Surgery scheduled for December to remove a cancerous lesion under his left eye was canceled — he received a death warrant that same day. Hamm’s illness compounded other problems: his veins were severely deteriorated, due in part to years of drug use, which would make inserting intravenous lines supremely difficult. There was one potentially viable vein in his hand, but nurses repeatedly reported having trouble using it to draw blood. The lethal injection would almost certainly not go according to plan.
The execution was supposed to begin at 6 p.m. Danny Hamm had been ordered to be in the parking lot of the nearby Fairfield Inn and Suites at 5:15 p.m. (Harcourt was told to wait at a Shell station off the highway.) But shortly afterward, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution. For the next few hours, Harcourt and Hamm waited, only to receive bad news at 8:45 p.m: The stay had been vacated. Harcourt called his client to break the news — “the most crushing moment of my life.” Then the van pulled up to take them to the prison.
But at Holman, facing the coroner’s vehicle and the red door, there was even more waiting. An hour passed, and then another. Neither Harcourt nor Hamm was allowed to bring their phones, making it impossible to receive information. The guards would not talk to them. “They won’t tell you anything,” Hamm said. “And you know something’s wrong. I mean it’s horrible … That’s my only brother laying in there.”
Harcourt was convinced he knew exactly what was wrong. “I’ve been telling them for seven months what’s gonna happen — which is that they’re not gonna be able to find a vein,” he said. By 11 p.m, he was losing it. “I tell the correctional officer that I need to talk to the warden, but she says no way.” Harcourt got the attention of the reporters inside the media van parked next to theirs, gesturing and pointing at his arm. A local TV reporter, Jack Royer, who was live-tweeting throughout the night, wrote that he was likely letting them know that the state was running out of time — the execution warrant expired at midnight. “But what I was trying to tell him was they’re torturing him.”
It was almost 11:30 p.m. when word finally came from inside: the execution had been stopped. Hamm and Harcourt broke down — “grown men crying,” Hamm said. The van pulled out quickly, along with the coroner’s vehicle, and dropped them off at the gas station. ADOC Commissioner Jeffrey Dunn addressed the media. They had called off the execution “out of an abundance of caution,” he said. It was “a time issue,” he said. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.”
When Harcourt saw Doyle Hamm the next day, he was limping and sore. On the phone from New York, Harcourt struggled for the words to describe him. He was “a shadow of himself,” he said. “It’s almost as if there was his body and there was Doyle the person, and they were only kind of coincidentally the same at that moment. It’s almost as if he really wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Hamm told Harcourt what had happened as he had lain strapped to the gurney for two and a half hours. Two people stood on either side of him attempting to access a vein. They “inserted needles multiple times on his left and right legs and ankles, each time forcing the needles into his lower extremities,” Harcourt later wrote on a website where he has posted updates on the case. They turned Hamm on his stomach, slapping the back of his legs, but could not get a vein. “With peripheral access unavailable, other IV execution personnel next attempted central venous access through Hamm’s right groin,” Harcourt wrote. It was painful and bloody. Hamm prayed and hoped they would succeed. When he was finally removed from the gurney, he collapsed.
The torture of Doyle Hamm was widely reported. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen decried the “ghoulish proceedings” and called for clemency. Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, called it “unconscionable,” writing, “Our hearts go out to everyone involved in this macabre display: from Mr. Hamm and his family and defense team, to the victim’s family, to the correctional officers.”
Yet while certainly rare, the failed execution was not exactly an aberration. Just three months earlier, in November 2017, a similar saga unfolded at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Lucasville, when executioners tried and failed to kill 69-year-old Alva Campbell. After poking and prodding him for 25 minutes to find a vein, Ohio officials called it off. This came less than 10 years after Ohio tried unsuccessfully to kill another man, Romell Broom. Both remain on death row.
Botched executions are as old as the death penalty itself. But the recent debacles in Ohio and Alabama raise a new set of concerns. “This process has gotten a lot riskier and even more irresponsible than it ever was,” says Fordham law professor Deborah Denno, the foremost expert on lethal injection. In its early days in Texas, which saw a series of executions gone awry, “the mantra at the time was that this was going to get better – that accidents happen.” But instead, it’s gotten worse. Until the failed execution of Broom in 2009, Denno said, “We had never seen executions (by lethal injection) that weren’t completed.”
That there have now been two such cases in a matter of months might be a fluke, says David Stebbins, the attorney for Campbell in Ohio. “It could be just the luck of the draw you have two very sick people come up almost back to back in different states,” he said. “Or it might also be a function of how old these guys are getting — and their health.” Like Harcourt, Stebbins raised alarm about Ohio’s plan to kill his client, then waited helplessly at the prison as the inevitable occurred. “They — as we did — warned the prison folks that they weren’t going to be able to get veins,” he said. “They warned them, they had hearings on it, they had examinations — more so than we did, I think.” In fact, Harcourt used Ohio as a cautionary tale. “I actually tried to introduce evidence of Alva Campbell’s botched attempt in federal court,” he said. They “didn’t want to hear about it.”
Alabama’s indifference had been on display for months. In September 2017, Dr. Mark Heath, an anesthesiologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, flew to Alabama, only to be barred from bringing his medical equipment past security. He resorted to using Harcourt’s tie as a tourniquet. Heath was nevertheless able to document the risks presented by the state’s plan. Hamm was “gaunt and frail,” with no accessible peripheral veins. An attempt to find a central vein — a more invasive procedure requiring skill and an ultrasound — would be complicated by the abnormal lymph nodes around his arteries and veins. Heath concluded that the state “is not equipped to achieve venous access.” But a state doctor, whose identity remains anonymous, disagreed. In early February, Harcourt sent a detailed letter to the governor, citing the risks and pleading for a reprieve. Danny and Linda Hamm wrote letters, too. They fell on deaf ears.
The refusal to heed such warnings has become a familiar theme in recent stories about lethal injection across the country. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous 2015 ruling in Glossip v. Gross upheld the use of midazolam — a risky and unreliable sedative for the purpose of executions — lawyers and medical experts warned of the dangers of putting untrained prison staff in charge of lethal injection. “Everyone focuses always on the drugs, particularly lately, without remembering that there are many other factors going on,” Denno says. Difficulty finding suitable veins has always been a problem, long before a shortage of execution drugs sent states scrambling to try new combinations and doses. Even if the drug problem could be fixed, Denno explains, there remain “all the physical challenges that even a very highly trained person would encounter.”
This is not just true for men like Campbell or Hamm. In cases in which the condemned are seriously overweight — a common issue on death row — the risks can be profound. When Arkansas sought to execute eight men in 11 days last spring, lawyers for both Marcel Williams and Jack Jones Jr., who were to die back to back, warned repeatedly that their obesity would complicate the process. In Jones’s case, prison staff struggled for some 45 minutes to place a central line in his neck, then placed it elsewhere. A spokesperson for the governor described the execution as “flawless,” but one trauma surgeon was disturbed. “Sounds like tonight’s Arkansas execution was botched,” he wrote in an email. “No one would try to place a central line in the neck of a 400 pound man without ultrasound guidance and a lot of previous experience. Who was placing the line?” That question — like most of the protocol in Arkansas, Ohio, and Alabama — remains secret by law.
Like most people whose executions have raised questions of torture, Jones is no longer alive to explain his experience. But there is reason to believe that there will be others who live to describe it. “Between the country’s aging death row population and the difficulty of finding reliable drugs, it seems inevitable that there might be more failed executions,” says Denno. Broom wrote about his own ordeal in a self-published book, which described the painful punctures and the nightmares that followed. For Campbell, Stebbins says, “Obviously it was a very traumatic experience for him to be brought into the execution chambers, strapped to a gurney and have people attempt to gain access. He’s had a very hard time with that psychologically and struggles with it still today.”
After the examination, Harcourt posted a brief update on his website. “Thursday night’s execution was worse than anticipated,” he wrote. Medical personnel “almost certainly punctured Doyle’s bladder, because he was urinating blood for the next day.” The amount of gushing blood also raised the possibility that his femoral artery has been struck. Hamm had “multiple puncture wounds on the ankles, calf, and right groin area.” In an especially unnerving detail, one participant “twice insisted” he keep trying to gain access through Hamm’s groin, even after the execution had been called off.
Harcourt was particularly disturbed by the wounds on Hamm’s right groin, which he saw firsthand. The state’s own doctor had warned of abnormal lymph nodes there – yet they stuck him repeatedly in that precise place, he said. “What is that about?”
As Harcourt awaits Heath’s official findings, a hearing has been scheduled for March 6. “I think it’s going to be an opportunity for the parties and the court to take stock of what happened and figure out a process to go forward,” Harcourt said. He will continue to fight for the disclosure of notes and other materials from the execution. In the meantime, he is still processing what he calls a “surreal, mind-boggling, traumatizing experience.” It was more than torture, he said. “It was a “wrongful execution.”
Danny Hamm is still struggling to find his own words for what happened that night. “It was just bad,” he said. “They need to rethink the way they’re doing things.” The state of Alabama was so convinced they would be able to do pull this off, he said. “And instead they went in and butchered a man.”
Update: March 3, 2018
Shortly after this story was published, news broke that Alva Campbell died early this morning after being found unresponsive in his prison cell. Ohio planned to try again to execute him in 2019. He was 69 years old.