‘Surreal spectacle’: US botched 35% of execution attempts this year – The Guardian
Annual review reveals that seven of the 20 execution attempts carried out this year were visibly problematic
As 2022 draws to a close, a new grim distinction can be attached to it: in America it was the year of the botched execution.
In its annual review of US capital punishment, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reveals the astonishing statistic that 35% of the 20 execution attempts carried out this year were visibly problematic.
Several were agonisingly drawn out as officials tried to secure a vein through which to inject lethal drugs, leading lawyers to describe the process as a form of torture. Others were carried out in violation of state protocols. Some went ahead even though there were defects in those protocols themselves.
As a result of these severe hitches, seven execution attempts could be construed as having been botched. Such a high proportion of problematic executions points to a gathering storm over the practice of lethal injections, the dominant method of judicial killings in the US which this month mark its 40th anniversary.
The first lethal injection was carried out by Texas on 7 December 1982, when convicted murderer Charles Brooks was administered a fatal dose of sodium thiopental.
“After 40 years, the states have proven themselves unable to carry out lethal injections without the risk that it will be botched,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s executive director. “The families of victims and prisoners, other execution witnesses, and corrections personnel should not be subjected to the trauma of an execution gone bad.”
Executioners in Alabama, Arizona and Texas botched the procedures as they tried to secure prisoners’ veins. In Alabama, the past three executions in a row have been mired in this way, starting with the July execution of Joe Nathan James which saw a three-hour struggle to set an IV line.
The following two executions – of Alan Miller and Kenneth Smith – were called off because the execution team were unable to find a workable vein before the death warrant expired. In November, Alabama’s Reublican governor Kay Ivey halted all executions in the state while a “top-to-bottom review” was carried out.
In Arizona, the execution in May of Clarence Dixon ended in a bloody mess – executioners tried for 25 minutes to set the IV and resorted to performing an unauthorized “cutdown”, slicing into his groin to reach a vein.
The following month Arizona’s inability to set the lethal injection tubes resulted in a “surreal spectacle”, as the Arizona Republic described it. The prisoner, Frank Atwood, gave advice to the IV team on how to find a suitable vein in his body so that they could kill him.
In other botched procedures, Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee and South Carolina were forced to put executions on temporary hold after they were unable to carry out state protocols.
DPIC’s annual review notes that a key factor that all the botched procedures had in common was a veil of secrecy used by death penalty states to avoid accountability. Three states, Idaho, Florida and Mississippi, introduced new laws further obscuring how executions are carried out, including hiding the source of their lethal drugs to sidestep court scrutiny.
Paradoxically, while lethal injections appear to be heading towards a crisis at their 40th anniversary, taken in its entirety the death penalty in America continues to wither on the vine. Though 27 states technically still have the ultimate punishment on their books, in practice only six – Alabama, Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas – killed prisoners this year.
The 18 executions that were completed in 2022, and the 22 new death sentences, are among the fewest of any year since 1991.
This week the governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, underlined the trend by commuting the death sentences of all 17 condemned inmates in the state to life without parole.
While the headline figures may be trending downwards, the systemic problems of the death penalty continued to be strongly on display in 2022. Two death-row prisoners were exonerated this year – Samuel Randolph in Pennsylvania and Marilyn Mulero in Illinois, highlighting the dangers that innocent men and women could be sent to their deaths.
By DPIC’s count, that brings the total number of exonerated death-row prisoners since 1973 to 190.
The overwhelming majority of people who were killed by death penalty states this year had glaring vulnerabilities. DPIC found that eight had serious mental illness, five were intellectually disabled, 12 had histories of traumatic childhoods, and three were killed for crimes they committed as teenagers.