The general myth of capital punishment, one that lends it a certain degree of digestibility in the public conscience, is that it’s somehow different from killing a human being. In reality, though, on death row the rule of law overlaps with the horrific violence it’s designed to prevent. Because the public might have difficulty swallowing this awareness, the institution of “capital punishment” benefits from downplaying its function. It’s a lukewarm phrase that evokes a lukewarm idea, the horror in killing theoretically replaced with procedure, painlessness and brevity.
But when the procedure fails, like in Oklahoma last April, that perception collapses. Suddenly we can’t ignore the difficult truth that capital punishment is really a form of violence, and in terms of morality, the real issue lies in the fact that no matter how much we streamline the institution of execution, a margin of human error has the potential to botch things up with horrific consequences.
If anything, the frequency of executions gone awry in America proves that error is anything but an anomaly. Decide for yourself with this timeline of 10 truly disturbing cases of botched executions throughout America’s history of capital punishment. Be warned, graphic descriptions follow which may be upsetting for sensitive readers.
10 John Louis Evans (1983): A shocking 14-minutes
John Evans’ rap included armed robberies, kidnappings, extortion schemes and murder. In the wake of Alabama’s freshly reinstated death penalty, his verdict was the electric chair—or rather an electric chair built by an inmate in 1927. After the first 1,900 volts, sparks and flames caught the electrode on John Evans’ left leg. His body wrangled as grey smoke crawled out from the hood over his face and filled the room with the horrific smell of burnt flesh and clothing. Doctors still found a pulse. After a second surge the burning only grew worse. Evans’ heart only stopped beating after a third charge ended, fourteen minutes after receiving the first.
9 Jimmy Lee Gray (1983): A steel pole and a drunk executioner
In early September, Mississippi reporters looked on as gas slowly poured into Jimmy Lee Gray’s execution chamber. His head, unrestrained, remained free to bludgeon repeatedly against a metal bar positioned innocuously behind his chair. 8 minutes later, his desperate gasps for air disturbed the audience so much that officials evacuated the observation room. The Associated Press counted eleven moans as Gray banged his head to unconsciousness against the steel pole. It was later revealed that the executioner was drunk at the time.
8 Wilbert Evans (1990): "Bury this with me"
In the mid-80s, Wilbert Evans protected 12 guards and two nurses from half-a-dozen knife-wielding prisoners during the largest death row escape in US prison history. This was one of many reasons Virginians believed Evans didn't deserve the death sentence at all, no less the manner in which it happened. The first electrical surge through Evans’ body sent blood pouring from the side of his face mask, running off his lip and sizzling as it ran down his shirt. Moans punctuated a bloody froth bubbling from his mouth until a second surge silenced him. In Evans’ pocket, officials recovered a copy of one US Supreme Court justice’s plea to spare his life. On it he wrote, “Please bury this with me.”
7 Robyn Leroy Parks (1992): Eleven traumatizing minutes
Lethal injection, while decidedly the least barbaric method, has proven as prone to flaws as the rest. These kinds of “botched” executions aren't exactly caused by human error, rather the choice to adopt poisons with unpredictable effects into standard practice. Robyn Lee Parks was one of many killed by a violent and painful reaction to the method. Two minutes in, the audience cowered at spasmodic contractions in Parks’ jaw, neck and abdomen. Oklahoma’s horrific spectacle proceeded into eleven minutes of violent gasping and gagging before Parks finally became lifeless. One attendant reporter described:
“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.”
6 Donald Eugene Harding (1992): Turning purple
April 6, 1992 would be the last time Arizona sentenced someone on death row to the gas chamber. Donald Eugene Harding’s execution by cyanide gas became such a disturbing spectacle that one reporter battled insomnia and psychological illness for several weeks and two others became “walking vegetables” for days afterward. The procedure took 10 and a half minutes to complete, as observers watched Harding demonically thrash in his restraining straps, gasping and moaning as his body turned “from red to purple”. One journalist commented: “We put animals to death more humanely.”
5 Pedro Medina (1997): An electrical fire
For Pedro Medina, the kill method itself collapsed into something far less humane. As the electricity coursed through Medina’s body, a foot-high fire engulfed his headpiece and released an acrid smoke and odor through the execution chamber. The two dozen witnesses gagged as officials scrambled to throw the manual power cut-off switch and halt the two-minute, 2,000-volt electrical cycle. Observers saw Medina — head still ablaze — heave three heavy breaths and die with the flames. Prison officials blamed it on a malfunctioning headpiece, but Florida’s investigation found the conductivity preparation sponging had been carried out improperly by the prison.
4 Allen Lee Davis (1999): A blood bath
“…the color photos of Davis depict a man who—for all appearances—was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida.”
We don't recommend looking for those photos. These harsh words were spoken by a Florida Supreme Court Justice after Florida’s brand new electric chair sent enough blood oozing from Allen Lee Davis’ mouth to form a “dinner plate” sized mark on his white shirt and ooze through the buckle holes on his leather restraints. The barbaric display ultimately became electrocution Swan Song in Florida — the state hasn't done it since.
3 Angel Diaz (2006): A whole hour
Since discontinuing the electric chair, Florida still continues having problems with its executions. Death by lethal injection is supposed to take about 7 and a half minutes. For Angel Diaz it took nearly an hour. A first injection left him squinting, grimacing, and mouthing words to observers, and when the prison finally decided he wasn't dying, they gave him a second. 34 more minutes passed.
The prison tried to blame the botched injection on Diaz’s liver disease. Meanwhile an autopsy by the medical examiner found his liver was fine. In actuality, the physicians stuck the needle into Diaz’s vein and out the other side, injecting the poison into soft tissue. Because it entered the bloodstream gradually and never fully reached his organs, Diaz’s body had time to fight the shut down.
Perhaps the scariest part is that Angel Diaz strongly maintained his innocence of murder until his death, and with no eyewitnesses in his conviction, the comparative certainty of his painful death feels more than a little wrong.
2 Romell Broom (2009): Death aborted
In Ohio 2009, executioners spent two hours sticking Romell Broom’s arms and legs with the lethal injection needle. His history of heavy intravenous drug use made finding a workable vein impossible. After the first hour of grimacing in pain, sobbing and covering his face with both hands, Broom himself tried to help find one. Two agonizing hours later, the Ohio Governor ordered an end to the execution and a review for future attempt. Broom has since written an ebook on the experience, and still remains on death row.
1 Clayton Lockett (2014): “Something’s wrong”
This is how last April’s botched execution played out: Ten minutes in, doctors declared Clayton Lockett unconscious. Then he raised his head and started speaking. “Oh man”, “I’m not” and “something’s wrong” were discerned, followed by convulsions. At fifteen minutes, he exhaled loudly and tried rising from the table. Executioners halted the procedure, and Lockett writhed in agony for half an hour before he died of a heart attack.
By all accounts Clayton Lockett was a guinea pig of capital punishment. Human rights groups have unanimously denounced the event with phrases like a “science experiment”, “state-sanctioned torture” and “barbarism” because doctors administered him an untested mixture of drugs that caused his vein to collapse upon injection. Most of the dose leaked out or absorbed into tissue, and they only had the one dose at hand. With only a partial amount in his system, all they could do was wait while the poison worked selectively on Lockett’s body.