How old is too old, how sick is too sick to be executed?


Just how old, how sick, or how mentally ill does a death row prisoner have to be for the government to opt not to execute him and let him die in prison?

It’s a question that grows ever more pertinent as the men and women on death rows around the country grow older, suffering from the common physical and mental problems of aging, greatly exacerbated by the additional stressors of prison life.

In the past few months, Missouri, Alabama, and Ohio have all been confronted with the stark reality of attempting to execute men whose bodies are too ravaged for the execution methods designated for them, or whose minds are so impaired they are being executed for a crime they can’t remember committing.

In Missouri, 49-year-old Russell Bucklew was within a few hours of his execution on March 20th when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay, in a 5-4 decision, to give it time to study his appeal. Bucklew suffers from cavernous hemangioma, a rare medical condition that causes blood-filled tumors in his head, throat and lips. Until the Supreme Court stepped in, the state was prepared to execute him by lethal injection despite his lawyers warning officials that, as they told the Kansas City Star, lethal injection would cause Bucklew “excruciating pain of prolonged suffocation resulting from the complete obstruction of his airway.” They argued that if the execution had to go forward the state should use lethal gas, instead of lethal injection, because his veins were so compromised by his condition. Lethal gas is still an option in Missouri, but the Star reports that the state no longer has a gas chamber and has not used the method since 1965. It isn’t clear what the state will do if the Supreme Court ultimately decides not to intervene, but they might want to look at Alabama before opting to go ahead with an execution.

In Alabama, death row prisoner Doyle Lee Hamm, who is 61 years old and terminally ill with cranial and lymphatic cancer, which he has been battling for almost four years, was scheduled to be executed on February 22. Just as in Bucklew’s case, Hamm’s lawyer, Bernard Harcourt, had warned the state that its 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 cited a report by Dr. Mark Heath, a Columbia University Medical Center anesthesiologist, who had examined Hamm to determine whether his peripheral veins could be injected with the state’s lethal drug cocktail, and concluded they could not, and that his “lymphatic cancer was likely to interfere with any attempt to utilize his central veins.”

Heath said 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.”

But state officials went ahead anyway after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his appeal, 5-4, and Harcourt’s prediction proved all too accurate. The execution team tried to kill Hamm for two-and-a-half hours, before giving up. Harcourt reported afterward that corrections officials “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.”

Harcourt and the state subsequently reached a confidential settlement in which the state agreed to let Hamm live out what is left of his life in prison, and Harcourt dropped the lawsuit he filed in the wake of the botched execution.

In Ohio, Alva Campbell, who was 69 years old and had lung cancer, COPD, and prostate cancer when the state attempted to execute him by lethal injection in November of last year, before giving up after 30 minutes of trying to find a suitable vein, died last month of natural causes. That’s approximately five months after the state insisted on executing Campbell in spite of the fact that according to the Dayton Daily News, he also was using a walker, had asthma, emphysema, and required an external colostomy bag.

Again in Alabama, in January, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Vernon Madison’s execution less than an hour before it was scheduled, and a month later agreed to review his case. Madison was sent to death row 33 years ago after being convicted of killing Mobile police Cpl. Julius Schulte in April 1985.

In their application for a stay, Madison’s lawyers from the Equal Justice Initiative argued that Madison is not competent to be executed because he “suffers from vascular dementia as a result of multiple serious strokes in the last two years and no longer has a memory of the commission of the crime for which he is to be executed.” They added that he is legally blind, cannot walk independently, and is incontinent.

The lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to address the “urgent and compelling question about whether the Eighth Amendment permits the execution of someone with dementia and acute cognitive decline.”

This request should be expanded to include the issue of a prisoner’s physical condition and whether the Eighth Amendment permits the execution of someone whose medical problems essentially ensure that he or she will undergo extreme pain, even torture, if subjected to current execution procedures. Or maybe it could be framed even more simply. Why are we executing the terminally and the mentally ill at all?

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