Doyle Lee Hamm has been on Alabama’s death row for 30 years. He is 60 years old, and is terminally ill with cranial and lymphatic cancer, which he has been battling for almost four years. Nevertheless, the Alabama Supreme Court signed Hamm’s death warrant last month, and he is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on February 22.
“When judges schedule a lethal injection for a terminally ill prisoner whose struggle against lymphatic cancer and extensive medical history has left him without any easily accessible veins, our law descends into a ghoulish inferno,” Hamm’s attorney, Bernard E. Harcourt, wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.
Hamm was convicted in 1987 of killing motel clerk Patrick Cunningham during a robbery, and sentenced to death. Harcourt has been his attorney since 1990, when he began working at the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization founded by Bryan Stevenson to provide legal assistance to prisoners on death row.
In his op-ed, Harcourt lays out the details of Hamm’s medical condition, explaining that in February 2014, doctors discovered “a large malignant tumor behind his left eye, filling the socket where the nerves from his brain went into his eye. The doctors found B-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer of the lymph nodes, with a large mass protruding through the holes of his skull. They also discovered ‘numerous abnormal lymph nodes’ in the abdomen, lungs and chest.”
He notes that a cancerous lesion that is eating through Hamm’s cheek and bone was scheduled to be surgically removed on December 13, but the surgery was canceled so the prison warden could read Hamm his death warrant.
But it isn’t just the shocking callousness of the state’s determination to kill a man who is terminally ill that makes the case of Doyle Lee Hamm so hard to understand. There is also the fact that the state’s method of execution is unlikely to work, and the net result will be a botched execution at best, and an excruciating, horrific murder at worst. That’s because, as Harcourt explains, Dr. Mark Heath, a Columbia University Medical Center anesthesiologist who examined Hamm to determine whether his peripheral veins could be injected with the state’s lethal drug cocktail, concluded they could not, and that his “lymphatic cancer was likely to interfere with any attempt to utilize his central veins.”
In a press release, Harcourt quotes Heath as saying that the probability of corrections officials being unable to inject the drugs properly could “cause Hamm to become paralyzed and consciously suffocate” and suffer “an agonizing death.”
Harcourt is asking the court to order corrections officials to explain how they plan to find a viable vein for the execution, to appoint a special master to oversee a medical exam prior to the execution, and to approve a protocol to “humanely achieve lethal injection.”
Harcourt will also continue his appeals to have Hamm’s sentence reduced to life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Hamm’s appeal in 2016.