On Thursday, February 22, three executions in three different states were scheduled, with three very different outcomes. Eric Branch was executed in Florida, dying with what eyewitnesses described as a “blood-curdling” scream. Doyle Lee Hamm was “tortured” for two-and-a-half hours in Alabama, his lawyer said, before officials gave up and left him “bruised, punctured, and limping from the attempted execution.” And Thomas Whitaker endured the full execution procedure right up until 30 minutes before he was scheduled to die when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott granted clemency.
The 47-year-old Branch, who was 21 at the time of the alleged crime, was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of 21-year-old University of West Florida student, Susan Morris, in 1993. The jury sentenced him to death by a vote of 10-2 in 1994. And while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that a death verdict must be unanimous, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the new sentencing rules apply only to cases decided after 2002. Both the state and high courts turned down Branch’s appeals on Thursday.
In the execution chamber, the Pensacola News Journal reported that Branch told the execution team that the governor and attorney general should be the executioners and then, as the lethal drugs were injected into his veins, began yelling “Murderers, murderers,” and let out what witnesses said was a “blood-curdling” scream as he thrashed on the gurney.
While a Dept. of Corrections official said Branch was not reacting to the lethal injection drugs, and insisted the procedure was carried out according to protocol, Maria DeLiberato, one of the attorneys representing several Florida prisoners in an ongoing challenge to the constitutionality of Florida’s lethal injection protocol, told DPF, “Our eyewitness interviews, as well as published media accounts, would support a distinctly different narrative: that, although the political comments certainly happened, Eric’s ‘blood-curdling’ scream more than likely resulted from the execution procedure and was accompanied by a great deal of thrashing and shaking of his body. “All of this would be consistent with the first drug [etomidate] failing to do its job, and Mr. Branch suffering excruciating pain from the subsequent drugs, which is precisely the constitutional deficiency we have alleged in Florida’s three-drug protocol.”
Doyle Lee Hamm was also scheduled to die Thursday night for the 1987 murder of motel clerk Patrick Cunningham during a robbery. He, too, was to be executed by lethal injection in spite of the fact that he is terminally ill with cranial and lymphatic cancer, which he has been battling for almost four years. As we reported in the January Focus, after the Alabama Supreme Court signed Hamm’s death warrant in December, his lawyer Bernard Harcourt wrote an op-ed in the New York Times explaining that because of Hamm’s medical condition, the state’s method of execution was unlikely to work, and the net result would be a botched execution at best, and an excruciating, horrific murder at worst. Harcourt referred to the opinion of 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. Heath concluded they could not, and that his “lymphatic cancer was likely to interfere with any attempt to utilize his central veins.”
Hamm’s lawyer and doctor were right. While the 61-year-old Hamm survived his two-plus hours of torture, according to Harcourt, the execution team “almost certainly punctured Doyle’s bladder, because he was urinating blood for the next day. They may have hit his femoral artery as well, because suddenly there was a lot of blood gushing out. There were multiple puncture wounds on the ankles, calf, and right groin area, around a dozen. They were grinding a needle in his shin area for many minutes, painfully. He seems to have six puncture marks in his right groin, and large bruising and swelling in the groin. He has pain going from the lower abdomen to the upper thigh. He is limping badly now and terribly sore. During the execution, Doyle was lying there praying and hoping that they would succeed because of the pain, and collapsed when they took him off the gurney. This was clearly a botched execution that can only be accurately described as torture.”
Unsurprisingly, corrections officials disagreed. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem,” Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said afterward, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
(On Monday, Harcourt submitted Dr. Heath’s report on Hamm’s condition post-botched execution to the federal court in Birmingham, with photographs documenting his injuries. He also filed petitions challenging the possibility of another execution under double jeopardy principles.)
Thomas Whitaker was also scheduled to be executed Thursday night. But half an hour before his execution, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott granted clemency and commuted his sentence to life in prison. According to the Texas Tribune, 150 people have been executed and more than 10 years have passed since a Texas governor has granted clemency to a condemned prisoner.
Whitaker had been sentenced to die for the 2003 killing of his mother and brother, which prosecutors said he planned with his roommate in an attempt to get inheritance money. His father was also shot but survived, and has campaigned for his son’s commutation. His roommate, whom prosecutors allege was the gunman, was given a life sentence, and is eligible for parole in 2035.
In a statement, the governor cited several reasons for his decision. He noted that while Whitaker did not actually fire the gun that killed his mother and brother, and injured his father, he was sentenced to death while the actual gunman was not. He also cited the unanimous recommendation by the Texas parole board that his sentence be commuted; and that Whitaker had agreed not to appeal his life sentence in the future. But what was probably the most decisive factor was the appeal by Whitaker’s father, Kent, who has forgiven his son, and campaigned for mercy.
“Mr. Whitaker’s father, who survived the attempt on his life, passionately opposes the execution of his son. Mr. Whitaker’s father insists that he would be victimized again if the state put to death his last remaining immediate family member,” Abbott said.
It was an all-too-rare case of the state listening to what a victims’ (and victim in this case) family member wanted when it wasn’t the death penalty. Too often, “victims’ rights” are cited by prosecutors and other officials when they charge the death penalty and ignored if they ask for a lesser sentence.
Still, it was a grim night. Three executions that spanned the spectrum. At one end, a last-minute commutation for a prisoner who had spent hours up to that point contemplating his own murder; in the middle, a botched procedure so torturous the prisoner hoped his executioners would succeed and end his pain; and at the other end, the murder of a screaming man, strapped to a gurney and calculatedly and coldly killed by a team of state officials.
“To ignore evil is to become accomplice to it,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said. How much longer will we ignore the evil that was on display that Thursday night?