The following contains disturbing accounts of executions. Viewer discretion is advised.
On the night of February 22, 2018, the Alabama Department of Corrections attempted to execute death-row inmate Doyle Lee Hamm by lethal injection. For more than two hours, an execution team struggled to gain access to a vein in which they could administer the lethal drugs. They punctured Hamm a dozen times, penetrating his bladder and femoral artery, before officials finally called off the execution around midnight.
Legal representatives had argued that Hamm’s years of intravenous drug use, combined with a lymphatic cancer he developed while incarcerated, would make the procedure nearly impossible. Following the ordeal, Hamm filed a civil rights lawsuit and reached a settlement with the state of Alabama that prohibited a second execution attempt.
“A botched execution is an execution which does not follow the legal protocol or, more importantly, it doesn’t comport with what might be called standard operating procedure,” Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College and author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, tells A&E Real Crime. Hamm, convicted for the 1987 murder of a hotel clerk, is the most recent example of an execution that did not go as planned. Between 1890 and 2010, an estimated three percent of all executions in the United States were botched. Since these figures were published, another eight executions have fallen outside of standard operating protocols.
A&E Real Crime explores some of America’s most infamous botched executions.
William Williams (1906, Hanging)
The botched execution of William Williams in 1906 brought an end to capital punishment in the state of Minnesota. Convicted of killing his teenage lover and the boy’s mother in St. Paul in April 1905, Williams was sentenced to death by hanging. During his execution, conducted in the basement of the Ramsey County Jail, Williams unexpectedly dropped through the trap door of the gallows and slammed onto the floor. The sheriff had cut the rope too long, requiring deputies to forcibly yank Williams’ body upward until he died from strangulation 14 minutes later.
In 1911, amid an outcry from death penalty opponents, members of Minnesota’s legislature voted to abolish state-sanctioned executions.
Eliseo Mares (1951, Firing Squad)
Convicted murderer Eliseo Mares became the first inmate put to death at Utah’s Point of the Mountain facility, yet very few details emerged about his execution by firing squad on September 10, 1951. Twenty-five years later, an eyewitness described how Mares “died silently and horribly.” Sharpshooters were positioned only 15 feet away, but they missed Mares’ heart, hitting him four times in the hip and stomach. Mares then bled to death as witnesses watched in horror.
“No one’s quite sure whether [not hitting the target] was accidental or done on purpose, but it took several minutes before Mares was declared dead,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, tells A&E Real Crime.
Jimmy Lee Gray (1983, Gas Chamber)
Jimmy Lee Gray, a previously convicted and paroled murderer, received the death penalty for kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing three-year-old Deressa Jean Scales in 1976. He was brought into Mississippi’s gas chamber on September 2, 1983 to be executed. Over a period of eight minutes, Gray moaned and struggled to breathe, at which time officials cleared the viewing room.
“Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the reporters [witnesses] counted his moans,” David Bruck, a defense attorney and death penalty scholar at Washington & Lee School of Law, later stated. Mississippi replaced the gas chamber with lethal injection in 2002.
Jesse Joseph Tafero (1990, Electrocution)
The execution of Jesse Joseph Tafero, who was sentenced to death for the double murder of two law enforcement officers in 1976, is among the most dramatic botched electrocutions in U.S. history. “With electrocution, like most execution procedures, there are several components and a number of things that can go wrong, including insufficient electricity or electrodes not being strapped to a chair the right way,” Sarat explains.
In Tafero’s case, officials improperly substituted a synthetic sponge for a natural sponge. As a result, during the May 1990 execution, the machine malfunctioned. Six-inch flames erupted from Tafero’s head and three jolts of electricity were required to stop his breathing.
“It’s horrible no matter what, but then consider the fact that Tafero was actually innocent,” says Dunham. Tafero’s friend, Walter Rhodes, later confessed to killing the officers.
Joseph Wood (2014, Lethal Injection)
The execution of Joseph Wood took place on July 23, 2014 at Florence State Prison in Arizona. Wood, who was sentenced to death in 1989 on two counts of first-degree murder, should have died within 10 minutes of receiving the first lethal injection drug. The procedure seemed to be going as planned until about seven or eight minutes in, when Dale Baich, a federal public defender and one of Wood’s attorneys who witnessed the execution, noticed Wood’s lips moving. Seconds later, Wood lurched upward against the straps and took a big breath, startling witnesses.
“He continued to gasp, gulp and struggle to breathe, and that went on for an hour and 40 minutes,” Baich tells A&E Real Crime. At some point, Baich passed a note to another lawyer present in the room, requesting that his office be notified. “An emergency motion was filed with the federal district court and a telephonic hearing was held. During that hearing, Mr. Wood passed away,” says Baich.
One witness reported that Wood gasped and snorted more than 600 times before he finally died nearly two hours later.
The state had used a new cocktail of lethal drugs, which were blamed for the botched execution. “We learned later on that Mr. Wood was injected with 14 additional doses of this midazolam-hydromorphone drug formula over the course of the execution, which was unheard of and violated Arizona protocol, allowing for one dose to be administered and a backup dose in case the first one did not kill the person,” Baich explains.
Clayton Lockett (2014, Lethal Injection)
On April 29, 2014, prison staff at the Oklahoma state penitentiary placed Clayton Lockett—convicted of killing 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman in 1999—onto an execution table and strapped him down. The execution team then tried for an hour to find a usable vein, puncturing Lockett more than a dozen times and soaking the gurney and spraying a member of the execution team in blood. The situation continued to spiral out of control.
“Mr. Lockett woke up from the state of sedation during the execution. The drug was spilling into the tissue rather than into his brain. He began to move and start talking and expressing how he was feeling,” says Baich, who has witnessed 14 executions. According to court transcripts, it is believed Lockett said, “This shit is fucking with my mind,” followed by, “Something is wrong.”
Lockett continued to struggle against the restraints, lifting his shoulders and head. A corrections officer called off the execution when it was determined that there was a problem with IV access. Lockett died from a heart attack 43 minutes after the first drug was administered.
According to Sarat, history has shown us that it is unlikely we will ever find a failsafe way of taking a human life during an execution. “The death penalty in the United States has been sustained by an illusion of a kind of technological progress, but the possibility of human error is always present. We’re not going to find one that’s foolproof so long as it’s humans administering the process,” says Sarat.