This is not a complete list of botched executions, but just an example of executions gone badly wrong (Road2Justice).
Michael L. Radelet
University of Colorado
NOTE: The list below is not intended to be a comprehensive catalogue of botched executions, but simply a listing of examples that are well-known.
1. August 10, 1982. Virginia. Frank J. Coppola. Electrocution. Although no media representatives witnessed the execution and no details were ever released by the Virginia Department of Corrections, an attorney who was present later stated that it took two 55-second jolts of electricity to kill Coppola. The second jolt produced the odor and sizzling sound of burning flesh, and Coppola’s head and leg caught on fire. Smoke filled the death chamber from floor to ceiling with a smokey haze.
2. April 22, 1983. Alabama. John Evans. Electrocution. After the first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames erupted from the electrode attached to Evans’s leg. The electrode burst from the strap holding it in place and caught on fire. Smoke and sparks also came out from under the hood in the vicinity of Evans’s left temple. Two physicians entered the chamber and found a heartbeat. The electrode was reattached to his leg, and another jolt of electricity was applied. This resulted in more smoke and burning flesh. Again the doctors found a heartbeat. Ignoring the pleas of Evans’s lawyer, a third jolt of electricity was applied. The execution took 14 minutes and left Evans’s body charred and smoldering.
3. Sept. 2, 1983. Mississippi. Jimmy Lee Gray. Asphyxiation. Officials had to clear the room eight minutes after the gas was released when Gray’s desperate gasps for air repulsed witnesses. His attorney, Dennis Balske of Montgomery, Alabama, criticized state officials for clearing the room when the inmate was still alive. Said noted death penalty defense attorney David Bruck, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the reporters counted his moans (eleven, according to the Associated Press).”3 Later it was revealed that the executioner, Barry Bruce, was drunk.
4. December 12, 1984. Georgia. Alpha Otis Stephens. Electrocution. “The first charge of electricity … failed to kill him, and he struggled to breathe for eight minutes before a second charge carried out his death sentence …”5 After the first two minute power surge, there was a six minute pause so his body could cool before physicians could examine him (and declare that another jolt was needed). During that six-minute interval, Stephens took 23 breaths. A Georgia prison official said, “Stephens was just not a conductor” of electricity.
5. March 13, 1985. Texas. Stephen Peter Morin. Lethal Injection. Because of Morin’s history of drug abuse, the execution technicians were forced to probe both of Morin’s arms and one of his legs with needles for nearly 45 minutes before they found a suitable vein.
6. October 16, 1985. Indiana. William E. Vandiver. Electrocution. After the first administration of 2,300 volts, Vandiver was still breathing. The execution eventually took 17 minutes and five jolts of electricity.8 Vandiver’s attorney, Herbert Shaps, witnessed the execution and observed smoke and the smell of burning. He called the execution “outrageous.” The Department of Corrections admitted the execution “did not go according to plan.”
7. August 20, 1986. Texas. Randy Woolls. Lethal Injection. A drug addict, Woolls helped the execution technicians find a useable vein for the execution.
8. June 24, 1987. Texas. Elliot Rod Johnson. Lethal Injection. Because of collapsed veins, it took nearly an hour to complete the execution.
9. December 13, 1988. Texas. Raymond Landry. Lethal Injection. Pronounced dead 40 minutes after being strapped to the execution gurney and 24 minutes after the drugs first started flowing into his arms.12 Two minutes after the drugs were administered, the syringe came out of Landry’s vein, spraying the deadly chemicals across the room toward witnesses. The curtain separating the witnesses from the inmate was then pulled, and not reopened for fourteen minutes while the execution team reinserted the catheter into the vein. Witnesses reported “at least one groan.” A spokesman for the Texas Department of Correction, Charles Brown (sic), said, “There was something of a delay in the execution because of what officials called a ‘blowout.’ The syringe came out of the vein, and the warden ordered the (execution) team to reinsert the catheter into the vein.”
10. May 24, 1989. Texas. Stephen McCoy. Lethal Injection. He had such a violent physical reaction to the drugs (heaving chest, gasping, choking, back arching off the gurney, etc.) that one of the witnesses (male) fainted, crashing into and knocking over another witness. Houston attorney Karen Zellars, who represented McCoy and witnessed the execution, thought the fainting would catalyze a chain reaction. The Texas Attorney General admitted the inmate “seemed to have a somewhat stronger reaction,” adding “The drugs might have been administered in a heavier dose or more rapidly.”
11. July 14, 1989. Alabama. Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr. Electrocution. It took two jolts of electricity, nine minutes apart, to complete the execution. After the first jolt failed to kill the prisoner (who was mildly retarded), the captain of the prison guard opened the door to the witness room and stated “I believe we’ve got the jacks on wrong.”15 Because the cables had been connected improperly, it was impossible to dispense sufficient current to cause death. The cables were reconnected before a second jolt was administered. Death was pronounced 19 minutes after the first electric charge. At a post-execution news conference, Alabama Prison Commissioner Morris Thigpen said, “I regret very very much what happened. [The cause] was human error.”
12. May 4, 1990. Florida. Jesse Joseph Tafero. Electrocution. During the execution, six-inch flames erupted from Tafero’s head, and three jolts of power were required to stop his breathing. State officials claimed that the botched execution was caused by “inadvertent human error” — the inappropriate substitution of a synthetic sponge for a natural sponge that had been used in previous executions.17 They attempted to support this theory by sticking a part of a synthetic sponge into a “common household toaster” and observing that it smoldered and caught fire.
13. September 12, 1990. Illinois. Charles Walker. Lethal Injection. Because of equipment failure and human error, Walker suffered excruciating pain during his execution. According to Gary Sutterfield, an engineer from the Missouri State Prison who was retained by the State of Illinois to assist with Walker’s execution, a kink in the plastic tubing going into Walker’s arm stopped the deadly chemicals from reaching Walker. In addition, the intravenous needle was inserted pointing at Walker’s fingers instead of his heart, prolonging the execution.
14. October 17, 1990. Virginia. Wilbert Lee Evans. Electrocution. When Evans was hit with the first burst of electricity, blood spewed from the right side of the mask on Evans’s face, drenching Evans’s shirt with blood and causing a sizzling sound as blood dripped from his lips. Evans continued to moan before a second jolt of electricity was applied. The autopsy concluded that Evans suffered a bloody nose after the voltage surge elevated his high blood pressure.
15. August 22, 1991. Virginia. Derick Lynn Peterson. Electrocution. After the first cycle of electricity was applied, and again four minutes later, prison physician David Barnes inspected Peterson’s neck and checked him with a stethoscope, announcing each time “He has not expired.” Seven and one-half minutes after the first attempt to kill the inmate, a second cycle of electricity was applied. Prison officials later announced that in the future they would routinely administer two cycles before checking for a heartbeat.
16. January 24, 1992. Arkansas. Rickey Ray Rector. Lethal Injection. It took medical staff more than 50 minutes to find a suitable vein in Rector’s arm. Witnesses were kept behind a drawn curtain and not permitted to view this scene, but reported hearing Rector’s eight loud moans throughout the process. During the ordeal Rector (who suffered from serious brain damage) helped the medical personnel find a vein. The administrator of State’s Department of Corrections medical programs said (paraphrased by a newspaper reporter) “the moans did come as a team of two medical people that had grown to five worked on both sides of his body to find a vein.” The administrator said “That may have contributed to his occasional outbursts.” The difficulty in finding a suitable vein was later attributed to Rector’s bulk and his regular use of antipsychotic medication.
17. April 6, 1992. Arizona. Donald Eugene Harding. Asphyxiation. Death was not pronounced until 10 1/2 minutes after the cyanide tablets were dropped.23 During the execution, Harding thrashed and struggled violently against the restraining straps. A television journalist who witnessed the execution, Cameron Harper, said that Harding’s spasms and jerks lasted 6 minutes and 37 seconds. “Obviously, this man was suffering. This was a violent death .. . an ugly event. We put animals to death more humanely.” Another witness, newspaper reporter Carla McClain, said, “Harding’s death was extremely violent. He was in great pain. I heard him gasp and moan. I saw his body turn from red to purple.”25 One reporter who witnessed the execution suffered from insomnia and assorted illnesses for several weeks; two others were “walking vegetables” for several days.
18. March 10, 1992. Oklahoma. Robyn Lee Parks. Lethal Injection. Parks had a violent reaction to the drugs used in the lethal injection. Two minutes after the drugs were dispensed, the muscles in his jaw, neck, and abdomen began to react spasmodically for approximately 45 seconds. Parks continued to gasp and violently gag until death came, some eleven minutes after the drugs were first administered. Tulsa World reporter Wayne Greene wrote that the execution looked “painful and ugly,” and “scary.” “It was overwhelming, stunning, disturbing — an intrusion into a moment so personal that reporters, taught for years that intrusion is their business, had trouble looking each other in the eyes after it was over.”
19. April 23, 1992. Texas. Billy Wayne White. Lethal Injection. White was pronounced dead some 47 minutes after being strapped to the execution gurney. The delay was caused by difficulty finding a vein; White had a long history of heroin abuse. During the execution, White attempted to assist the authorities in finding a suitable vein.
20. May 7, 1992. Texas. Justin Lee May. Lethal Injection. May had an unusually violent reaction to the lethal drugs. According to one reporter who witnessed the execution, May “gasped, coughed and reared against his heavy leather restraints, coughing once again before his body froze …”29 Associated Press reporter Michael Graczyk wrote, “Compared to other recent executions in Texas, May’s reaction was more violent. He went into a coughing spasm, groaned and gasped, lifted his head from the death chamber gurney and would have arched his back if he had not been belted down. After he stopped breathing, his eyes and mouth remained open.”
21. May 10, 1994. Illinois. John Wayne Gacy. Lethal Injection. After the execution began, the lethal chemicals unexpectedly solidified, clogging the IV tube that lead into Gacy’s arm, and prohibiting any further passage. Blinds covering the window through which witnesses observed the execution were drawn, and the execution team replaced the clogged tube with a new one. Ten minutes later, the blinds were then reopened and the execution process resumed. It took 18 minutes to complete.31 Anesthesiologists blamed the problem on the inexperience of prison officials who were conducting the execution, saying that proper procedures taught in “IV 101” would have prevented the error.
22. May 3, 1995. Missouri. Emmitt Foster. Lethal Injection. Seven minutes after the lethal chemicals began to flow into Foster’s arm, the execution was halted when the chemicals stopped circulating. With Foster gasping and convulsing, the blinds were drawn so the witnesses could not view the scene. Death was pronounced thirty minutes after the execution began, and three minutes later the blinds were reopened so the witnesses could view the corpse. According to William “Mal” Gum, the Washington County Coroner who pronounced death, the problem was caused by the tightness of the leather straps that bound Foster to the execution gurney; it was so tight that the flow of chemicals into the veins was restricted. Foster did not die until several minutes after a prison worker finally loosened the straps. The coroner entered the death chamber twenty minutes after the execution began, diagnosed the problem, and told the officials to loosen the strap so the execution could proceed. In an editorial, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the execution “a particularly sordid chapter in Missouri’s capital punishment experience.”
23. January 23, 1996. Virginia. Richard Townes, Jr. Lethal Injection. This execution was delayed for 22 minutes while medical personnel struggled to find a vein large enough for the needle. After unsuccessful attempts to insert the needle through the arms, the needle was finally inserted through the top of Mr. Townes’s right foot.
24. July 18, 1996. Indiana. Tommie J. Smith. Lethal Injection. Because of unusually small veins, it took one hour and nine minutes for Smith to be pronounced dead after the execution team began sticking needles into his body. For sixteen minutes, the execution team failed to find adequate veins, and then a physician was called. Smith was given a local anesthetic and the physician twice attempted to insert the tube in Smith’s neck. When that failed, an angio-catheter was inserted in Smith’s foot. Only then were witnesses permitted to view the process. The lethal drugs were finally injected into Smith 49 minutes after the first attempts, and it took another 20 minutes before death was pronounced.
25. March 25, 1997. Florida. Pedro Medina. Electrocution. A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. After the execution, prison officials blamed the fire on a corroded copper screen in the headpiece of the electric chair, but two experts hired by the governor later concluded that the fire was caused by the improper application of a sponge (designed to conduct electricity) to Medina’s head.
26. May 8, 1997. Oklahoma. Scott Dawn Carpenter. Carpenter was pronounced dead some 11 minutes after the lethal injection was administered. As the drugs took effect, Carpenter began to gasp and shake. “This was followed by a guttural sound, multiple spasms and gasping for air” until his body stopped moving, three minutes later.
27. June 13, 1997. South Carolina. Michael Eugene Elkins. Lethal Injection. Because Elkins’s body had become swollen from liver and spleen problems, it took nearly an hour to find a suitable vein for the insertion of the catheter. Elkins tried to assist the executioners, asking “Should I lean my head down a little bit?” as they probed for a vein. After numerous failures, a usable vein was finally found in Elkins’s neck.
28. April 23, 1998. Texas. Joseph Cannon. Lethal Injection. It took two attempts to complete the execution. After making his final statement, the execution process began. A vein in Cannon’s arm collapsed and the needle popped out. Seeing this, Cannon lay back, closed his eyes, and exclaimed to the witnesses, “It’s come undone.” Officials then pulled a curtain to block the view of the witnesses, reopening it fifteen minutes later when a weeping Cannon made a second final statement and the execution process resumed.
29. August 26, 1998. Texas. Genaro Ruiz Camacho. Lethal Injection. The execution was delayed approximately two hours due, in part, to problems finding suitable veins in Camacho’s arms.
30. October 5, 1998. Nevada. Roderick Abeyta. It took 25 minutes for the execution team to find a vein suitable for the lethal injection.
31. July 8, 1999. Florida. Allen Lee Davis. “Before he was pronounced dead … the blood from his mouth had poured onto the collar of his white shirt, and the blood on his chest had spread to about the size of a dinner plate, even oozing through the buckle holes on the leather chest strap holding him to the chair.” His execution was the first in Florida’s new electric chair, built especially so it could accommodate a man Davis’s size (approximately 350 pounds). Later, when another Florida death row inmate challenged the constitutionality of the electric chair, Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw commented that “the color photos of Davis depict a man who — for all appearances — was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida.”46 Justice Shaw also described the botched executions of Jesse Tafero and Pedro Medina (q.v.), calling the three executions “barbaric spectacles” and “acts more befitting a violent murderer than a civilized state.” Justice Shaw included pictures of Davis’s dead body in his opinion. The execution was witnessed by a Florida State Senator, Ginny Brown-Waite, who at first was “shocked” to see the blood, until she realized that the blood was forming the shape of a cross and that it was a message from God saying he supported the execution.
32. May 3, 2000. Arkansas. Christina Marie Riggs. Riggs dropped her appeals and asked to be executed. However, the execution was delayed for 18 minutes when prison staff couldn’t find a suitable vein in her elbows. Finally, Riggs agreed to the executioners’ requests to have the needles in her wrists.
33. June 8, 2000. Florida. Bennie Demps. It took execution technicians 33 minutes to find suitable veins for the execution. “They butchered me back there,” said Demps in his final statement. “I was in a lot of pain. They cut me in the groin; they cut me in the leg. I was bleeding profusely. This is not an execution, it is murder.” The executioners had no unusual problems finding one vein, but because Florida protocol requires a second alternate intravenous drip, they continued to work to insert another needle, finally abandoning the effort after their prolonged failures.
34. December 7, 2000. Texas. Claude Jones. Jones was a former intravenous drug abuser. His execution was delayed 30 minutes while the execution “team” struggled to insert an IV into a vein. He had been a longtime intravenous drug user. One member of the execution team commented, “They had to stick him about five times. They finally put it in his leg.” Wrote Jim Willett, the warden of the Walls Unit and the man responsible for conducting the execution, “The medical team could not find a vein. Now I was really beginning to worry. If you can’t stick a vein then a cut-down has to be performed. I have never seen one and would just as soon go through the rest of my career the same way. Just when I was really getting worried, one of the medical people hit a vein in the left leg. Inside calf to be exact. The executioner had warned me not to panic as it was going to take a while to get the fluids in the body of the inmate tonight because he was going to push the drugs through very slowly. Finally, the drug took effect and Jones took his last breath.”
35. June 28, 2000. Missouri. Bert Leroy Hunter. Hunter had an unusual reaction to the lethal drugs, repeatedly coughing and gasping for air before he lapsed into unconsciousness. An attorney who witnessed the execution reported that Hunter had “violent convulsions. His head and chest jerked rapidly upward as far as the gurney restraints would allow, and then he fell quickly down upon the gurney. His body convulsed back and forth like this repeatedly. … He suffered a violent and agonizing death.”
36. November 7, 2001. Georgia. Jose High. High was pronounced dead some one hour and nine minutes after the execution began. After attempting to find a useable vein for 39 minutes, the emergency medical technicians under contract to do the execution abandoned their efforts. Eventually, one needle was stuck in High’s hand, and a physician was called in to insert a second needle between his shoulder and neck.
37. May 2, 2006. Ohio. Joseph L. Clark. Lethal Injection. It took 22 minutes for the execution technicians to find a vein suitable for insertion of the catheter. But three or four minutes thereafter, as the vein collapsed and Clark’s arm began to swell, he raised his head off the gurney and said five times, “It don’t work. It don’t work.” The curtains surrounding the gurney were then closed while the technicians worked for 30 minutes to find another vein. Media witnesses later reported that they heard “moaning, crying out and guttural noises.” Finally, death was pronounced almost 90 minutes after the execution began. A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Corrections told reporters that the execution team included paramedics, but not a physician or a nurse.