U.S. Death Penalty: Botched Executions And Suicide Attempts

Billy Slagle died in a holding cell, like the one in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility featured here, three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him (Photo Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images).

Billy Slagle died in a holding cell, like the one in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility featured here, three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him (Photo Credit: Mike Simons/Getty Images).

Back in 2010, the cruelty – and absurdity – of the death penalty was on full display when Brandon Rhode tried to commit suicide just days before he was to be executed by the state of Georgia. The state rushed him to the hospital and saved his life – only to execute him a week later.

The suicide attempt reportedly left Rhode brain damaged. He was shackled to a restraint chair for the next 7 days, and then the execution proceeded. The lethal injection may have been botched, as Rhode’s eyes remained open the entire time.

This weekend, Billy Slagle was found hanged in his cell on Ohio’s death row. Slagle died three days before the state of Ohio was to execute him. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has promised a “complete investigation.”


Ohio at Death Penalty Crossroads

(c) Scott Langley

As the pace of executions has accelerated in Ohio (it was second only to Texas is executions last year), the Buckeye State has been at the center of death penalty debates in the U.S.  Since the miserably failed execution of Romell Broom (in which he was subjected to two hours of unsuccessful attempts to find a vein suitable for injecting the lethal drugs) Ohio has twice switched execution protocols – first, moving to a one drug method (a massive dose of the anesthetic sodium thiopental), and now, as that drug’s manufacturer has taken it off the market, a one drug dose of a different anesthetic, pentobarbital, which is commonly used to put down animals

The first execution in Ohio to incorporate this new drug is scheduled for March 10.

Meanwhile, those who know Ohio’s death penalty the best have begun to assert that Ohio should just abolish the death penaltyOhio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who as a state Senator was largely responsible for enacting Ohio’s death penalty law, has called for an end to capital punishment in his state.  And Terry Collins, a former warden who personally witnessed 33 executions, has also urged Ohioans to give up the death penalty.

On the question of capital punishment, Ohio is moving simultaneously in two different directions.  Will Ohio ignore the voices of those most experienced with the death penalty and continue to execute prisoners at a record pace?  Or will the people of Ohio heed those voices and move to shut down Ohio’s incredibly dysfunctional death penalty once and for all?

It's Still About Killing People

lineedleCaught between a legal requirement to avoid cruelty, and its desire to kill prisoners, the state of Ohio is struggling to find an acceptable method of execution following the botched, and failed, attempt to put Romell Broom to death on September 15.  As reported in today’s New York Times, the method the state has chosen is injection into the vein of a single, lethal dose of anesthetic.  This seems peculiar, since it was failure to find a suitable vein that led to the botched executions of Joseph Clark and Christopher Newton, as well as the recent Broom fiasco.

In the new Ohio protocol, another alternative, intramuscular injection, is available as a backup.  This method has not been used before, but was given the thumbs up by Massachusetts anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Dershwitz, the one doctor in America who seems willing to help states kill prisoners.  A local Ohio doctor, Jonathan Groner, seems to disagree, suggesting that legal challenges are far from over.  “In the end this is still about killing people.”

It is indeed, and if this protocol proves acceptable to Ohio and federal courts, the lethal injection of Kenneth Biros and others could be back on schedule (the stay of Biros’ December 8 date is only temporary), and Ohio’s one-a-month assembly line of executions could be back in business.

Ohio Needs a Moratorium on Executions Now

The death penalty is always inhumane, but Ohio’s failed attempt to execute Romell Broom on September 15th was particularly disturbing.  During the two-hour ordeal the execution team repeatedly attempted and failed to find a useable vein in which to insert the lethal injection needle, and eventually had to give up.  Mr. Broom’s execution has been stayed, but Lawrence Reynolds, Darryl Durr, and Kenneth Biros are still scheduled to be put to death before the end of this year. Mr. Reynolds lawyers have filed for a stay of execution, pointing out that this latest failed execution attempt is further evidence of “a pattern of serious problems with the administration of lethal injection in Ohio.”  While the victims of these crimes and their families always suffer greatly, the perpetuation of violence through the death penalty is never the most constructive way to handle such tragedies.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique; in Ohio alone there have been at least two other poorly handled executions over the last three years. In May of 2006, it took the Ohio execution team nearly half an hour to find a useable vein in condemned prisoner Joseph Clark’s arm, and then that vein collapsed, causing Clark’s arm to swell. The witnesses reported hearing “moaning, crying out and guttural noises” coming from behind the curtain while the execution team continued to try for 30 more minutes to find another vein. It wasn’t until an hour and a half after the execution began that Joseph Clark was pronounced dead.

In 2007 another execution team in Ohio struggled to find useable veins in condemned prisoner, this time Christopher Newton. It was again a prolonged ordeal, and Mr. Newton was not declared dead until nearly two hours after the execution process began.
Ohio state officials still have no contingency plan for these kinds of situations, and they are not addressed in the state’s lethal injection protocol. Because of this clear evidence that the state of Ohio has serious problems administering lethal injections, please tell Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to stop executions from being carried out in his state.

Iran, Ohio, and the Question of Executing the Same Person Twice

In Iran, in January of this year, a man being stoned to death for adultery managed to survive his ordeal by digging his way out of the pit in which he had been buried.  According to an Amnesty International report, citing Iran’s penal code, “if the condemned person manages to escape from the pit, they will not be stoned again if they had been sentenced after confession.” The man who escaped in January was not stoned again that day, though it is believed he was taken back into custody.

Today, Ohio faces a similar dilemma.  Romell Broom survived the Buckeye state’s attempts to execute him by lethal injection, due to the failure of his executioners to find a useful vein in which to inject the poison.    Does this mean Mr. Broom will no longer face the needle, or will Ohio subject him to a second execution?  It appears that the latter is the case (Ohio Governor Ted Strickland merely granted Mr. Broom a week-long reprieve), although there may be arguments in court that being executed twice would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

Ohio has had these problems before: the execution of Christopher Newton (who “volunteered” to be executed by giving up his appeals) took 90 minutes, and the lethal injection of Joseph Clark took 40.  In both cases, the delay was the result of the inability of the execution team to find suitable veins.

Given that this horrible problem keeps re-occurring, it would be wise for Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to at least declare a moratorium and halt executions in his state.