No Second Chances: What to Do After a Botched Execution


November  18, 2017

The pathos and problems of America’s death penalty were vividly on display yesterday when Ohio tried and failed to execute Alva Campbell. Immediately after its failure Gov. John Kasich set June 5, 2019, as a new execution date.

This plan for a second execution reveals a glaring inadequacy in the legal standards governing botched executions in the United States.

Campbell was tried and sentenced to die for murdering 18-year-old Charles Dials during a carjacking in 1997. After Campbell exhausted his legal appeals, he was denied clemency by the state parole board and the governor.

By the time the state got around to executing Campbell, he was far from the dangerous criminal of 20 years ago. As is the case with many of America’s death-row inmates, the passage of time had inflicted its own punishments.

The inmate Ohio strapped onto the gurney was a 69-year-old man afflicted with serious ailments, including lung cancer, COPD and respiratory failure. Campbell has had prostate cancer and a hip replacement. He needs daily oxygen treatments, uses a walker and is tethered to a colostomy bag.

Ohio officials were so aware of Campbell’s breathing problems that they provided a wedge-shaped pillow to raise his head, so he could breathe more easily as it set about to end his life.

Officials had been warned about the difficulty of finding a usable vein, and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction had problems finding Campbell’s veins during a recent exam.

Nonetheless, the state went ahead with his execution.

On Wednesday, the execution team tried four different places in Campbell’s arms and right leg to insert the needle through which to administer lethal drugs. After 30 minutesit stopped the execution and returned Campbell to death row.

Stopping an execution before it is completed is quite unusual, even if serious problems occur during the procedure. Those serious problems are not rare: Approximately 3 percent of American executions were botched during the 20th century, and 7 percent of lethal injections have been botched since its first use in 1982.

But Campbell’s was one of the very few executions to be halted since the mid-1940s.

The first of those was Louisiana’s botched electrocution of Willie Francis, in which the current of electricity was not sufficient to kill him.

The second time an execution was stopped in mid-course occurred in Ohio during the 2009 effort to put Romell Broom to death. The execution team could not find a usable vein. After two hours of repeatedly poking and stabbing Broom’s arms and legs, they gave up.

In April 2014, when Oklahoma tried to execute Clayton Lockett, officials also had problems finding a usable vein. They finally inserted the needle into a vein in his groin. When the lethal drugs were administered, Lockett struggled violently: The needle had dislodged from the vein into a muscle. Ultimately the execution was stopped before Lockett was killed. Sometime later he died of a heart attack while still strapped to the gurney.

Lockett’s death was one of the more gruesome in America’s history of botched executions, but it spared the state an ethical and legal question that faced officials in the Francis and Broom cases, and now faces Ohio officials who failed to execute Campbell. What should be done with him?

Should the state, having failed in its first execution attempt, be able to try again? Are we well served when we force the condemned to undergo the psychological torture of having to prepare to die, only to have to relive the experience of execution a second time?

The courts bent over backward to permit a second execution in the Francis and Broom cases. In the former, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state would only be barred from going through with a second execution if it had intentionally botched the first. Even if the state were careless or negligent in its first execution attempt, the court said, it could still proceed with another. The state of Louisiana went ahead and put Francis to death.

In March 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Broom to stop his second execution. The court reaffirmed the Francis precedent and added that since the lethal chemicals had not begun to flow when his execution was halted, his “punishment” had not really begun. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal that a second execution would constitute double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment. Broom awaits his execution date on Ohio’s death row.

The fine legalisms of the Francis and Broom decisions give the state too much room for error in the serious business of putting someone to death. If the state is going to kill, it should have the burden of getting it right the first time. The law should allow no second chances.

I say this not out of sympathy for those whose heinous acts bring them to the death chamber, but because how a society punishes reveals its true character. Punishment tells us who we are.

When we punish cruelly we create “a class of punishers whose lives are wasted and their characters depraved so that as citizens they become almost as undesirable as the criminals they torture.”

Those are the words of a playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and, as Ohio considers what to do with Campbell, it should heed his warning. Ohio failed to execute Alva Campbell, despite all the warning signs of the risk of failure because of his weakened physical state. Now, Ohio’s citizens and public officials should be careful, lest in their eagerness to try a second time, they “become almost as undesirable” as the murderer they seek to execute.

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