WASHINGTON — US executions are meant to be clinical and humane, but
for some they end up resembling medieval torture, complete with the
smell of burning flesh, screams, and scenes so gruesome that witnesses
"We put animals to death more humanely," reporter Carla
McClain said of a 1992 execution she witnessed, in which Donald Eugene
Harding writhed and thrashed in an Arizona gas chamber for over 10
minutes before dying.
Last month, Romell Brown became only the
second man to leave a US execution chamber alive, after 18 failed
attempts to administer the lethal injection.
Authorities in Ohio decided to halt his execution after officials spent two hours trying to inject him with lethal chemicals.
of those executed in the United States in the last 25 years were not so
lucky, suffering through executions in which flesh caught on fire,
blood saturated shirts, and witnesses watched and listened as the
condemned convulsed and screamed with pain.
In 1999, Florida
Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw reacted with horror to pictures of
Allen Lee Davis, who was put to death by electric chair.
color photos of Davis depict a man who -- for all appearances -- was
brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida," Shaw wrote.
had been strapped into an electric chair especially designed to fit his
350-pound frame. As he was electrocuted, but before he was pronounced
dead, blood poured from his mouth, soaking his white shirt and oozing
through the buckle holes of the strap holding him down.
Radelet, a professor at the University of Colorado, worked with the
Death Penalty Information Center to collect testimony on more than 40
botched instances from the witnesses required to be present at
Horror stories have emerged about all the execution
methods commonly used in the United States, including the electric
chair, lethal injection and gas chamber, with most of the disasters due
to human error.
In 1983 in Alabama, a first jolt of electricity
caused the electrode attached to John Evans' leg to catch fire. Smoke
and sparks also came from under the hood placed over his head, near
where an electrode was strapped to his left temple.
jolt was administered, but despite the smoke and smell of burning
flesh, doctors discovered Evans' heart was still beating and applied a
third jolt that finally killed him after 14 minutes.
later, in Indiana, William Vandiver received five separate jolts of
electricity over the course of 17 minutes before his heart stopped.
Joseph Tafero was sentenced to death by electric chair in Florida in
1990, but a synthetic sponge that was used during his execution caught
fire, causing six-inch flames to erupt from his head.
to death by gas chamber in Mississippi in 1983, Jimmy Lee Gray had the
misfortune to be put to death by an executioner who later admitted he
was drunk. Gray's gasps and moans so horrified observers that the
witness room was cleared by officials.
In recent years, several
lawsuits have challenged the lethal injection as "cruel," but it
continues to be used by most US states practicing the death penalty and
the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 2008.
Bennie Demps, who spent 33 minutes of agony as execution technicians
tried to find a back-up vein that could support an alternate
intravenous drip in case the first one failed, the pain was
"They butchered me back there. I was in a lot of
pain. They cut me in the groin, they cut me in the leg. I was bleeding
profusely. This is not an execution, it is murder," he said in his
In Angel Diaz's case, in Florida in 2006, a
single dose of the lethal cocktails that anesthetize, paralyze and then
stop the recipient's heart was not enough. The first injection went
through his vein and out the other side, dispersing the chemicals into
his muscles, forcing a second dose to be given.
At times, the
scenes have been gruesome enough to physically affect observers. In
1989, in Texas, which holds the record for the most US executions, a
male witness fainted after watching Stephen McCoy's violent writhing.
Some of the most recent horror stories come from Ohio, where Broom's execution was halted.
don't work! It don't work," yelled a sobbing Joseph Clark in May 2006,
as the vein that executioners had worked 22 minutes to find collapsed
while the chemicals were being administered.
A year later, Ohio
authorities took two hours to successfully find veins and administer
Christopher Newton the lethal injection. The process took so long, he
was authorized to take a bathroom break.
The only other person to
have survived execution in the United States was young black man named
Willie Francis who survived a Louisiana electric chair in the 1940s. He
was later put to death on a second attempt.