What Happens When Death Row Execution Fails

Skin splitting open, veins blackening, flames erupting from the eyes- what happens when execution fails or goes horribly wrong?! We’ll start with a very recent case, one which involves some failure but the authorities managed to succeed in the end. We’re including it, just to give you an idea of what can go wrong. The condemned man was named Angel Nieves Diaz. He’d been convicted of a murder of which he always said he was innocent.

His last words were, “The state of Florida is committing a crime because I am innocent. The death penalty is not only a form of vengeance but also a cowardly act by humans.” Prior to that, he had some turkey and cheese tacos for his final meal. At Florida State Prison, he was strapped to the gurney. The authorities injected the drugs and waited…and then waited some more. They then watched as Diaz’s arm went black from chemical burns.

And then after ten minutes, obviously in pain, he muttered, “What is going on?” Now, you’d think the state would have stopped the execution there and then, but no, in this case, they just kept going. After 24 minutes, when Diaz should have been long dead, his head jolted. His eyes then opened wide, giving a fright to all the people watching. Diaz was cheating death. Again, if you are that way inclined, you might think some higher power wanted to save him. He choked, and then people said his “skin ripped.” It was a terrible thing to behold. An expert later talked about his injuries, saying, “That is the kind of injury we see when a kid has fallen in a campfire or set his arm on fire.

My guess is someone who got this when alive would need skin grafts to heal.” That person described the injuries as “skin slippage” which is a term you probably never want to hear again in your life. He also said he’d never seen anything like it. Then after 34 minutes, a doctor wearing a Covid mask rushed in to check Diaz’s vital signs. He was dead, but you have to ask how they could let him suffer like that. Why didn’t they call it off? After all, it was evident that the execution was botched. A reporter who was there said for a long time Diaz’s mouth was “flexing like a fish out of water.”

Now let’s go back in time for a famously failed execution. An executioner at Exeter prison in England pulls a white hood over a condemned man’s head. He then fastens a belt around his ankles. That man, shaking, whispering prayers under his breath, braces himself and gets ready to depart. From a nearby window, the governor is watching, just as the executioner pulls the lever. And then…nothing. Believe it or not, the condemned man, John “Babbacombe” Lee, went to the scaffold on three occasions, and each time the device failed to work even though the executioner had gone through all the routine checks.

There didn’t seem to be a problem. Nonetheless, the trapdoor each time failed to open. Lee became known as ‘the man they couldn’t hang”. His story is even more mind-blowing when you consider the fact that his conviction for murder was based on some very suspect evidence. Right up until the time he walked to that scaffold, he claimed he was innocent. If you’re so inclined, you could say some divine intervention took place, but the likely reality is the machine had a faulty drawbar which prevented the trapdoor from opening. Either way, Lee was probably innocent of that murder, so the right thing happened in the end.

In fact, when the judge asked him if he had anything to say about his death sentence, his exact words were, “The reason why I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord, and he knows I am innocent.” Someone surviving three separate executions is kind of amusing for us now but imagine how Lee felt those three times. The experience must have been awful. Still, Lee later wrote that on attempt number three he just wanted a quick death, saying, “The suspense was becoming unbearable.

I wanted them to get it over at any price.” You might also ask how could the authorities do that three times? Surely there must be some kind of executioner ethics manual to follow? What about that thing called “cruel and unusual” punishment? In Lee’s case, his torment was seen as cruel. After the third attempt, the authorities said he’d been through enough. The British Home Secretary explained why, saying, “Lee was not reprieved because the merits of his case justified the step, but because of the miserable bungle which was made in an attempting to hang him.” But that was back in the day.

Some botched executions have been worse than that, and most of them have taken place in the USA. As you’ll see today, some folks in that country have pretty much been fried in the electric chair, their hair ablaze, their bones shuddering, and yet not died as expected. Others have been injected with that killer poison and still come out breathing. Did those guys, like Lee, receive a get-out-of-death card, too? Can you actually sue the authorities for messing up your execution? Surely even prisoners have rights when it comes to causing them incredible pain and emotional anguish? Well, in some cases, they do call it off. When that happens, killing someone turns into trying to save someone’s life.

It’s actually believed something like seven percent of lethal injection executions is botched in the USA, but perhaps the worst one involved a man named Clayton Lockett. His case was exceptional. He was also given a lethal injection of drugs. In case you don’t know, the cocktail has three potent drugs. One part should knock the person out. The next bit should make him a paralytic, and the last part should stop his heart, on a good day, that is. It should work, but judging the correct doses involves a bit of guesswork, and the person doing the guessing sometimes isn’t a medical professional.

The Atlantic explained, “These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past.” Lockett, a convicted killer, was given his lethal injection. By all accounts, the prison had had difficulty getting the drugs. This is why things didn’t go to plan. They also used a sedative that wasn’t usually used called midazolam. In fact, a paramedic later told the press that lots of things seemed wrong that day.

She said the syringes were the wrong size and the tubing on the IV was not the right kind. Nonetheless, Lockett was strapped down in the death chamber while waiting for the drugs to be administered. The paramedic stuck in the needle, and blood flowed into the barrel. So far, so good. But then the IV came loose, and she tried to put the needle in again. It didn’t work this time. Lockett had been an intravenous drug user, something that had damaged his veins. The paramedic later said she was told if you fail three times to get that needle in you to have to give up and let someone else do it.

A doctor stepped in to help, which shouldn’t happen, given that docs swear on the hypocritic oath never to cause harm to someone. He didn’t like the look of Lockett’s arms, but then he saw the perfect vein in his neck. He turned to the paramedic and said, “Get me a needle for the jugular.” As he was trying to stick the needle in Lockett’s neck, the paramedic was working on his arms. Failure again, so the doc tried to find a vein in Lockett’s groin. This was starting to look very bad. They then brought out longer needles, and still, they failed. That’s when the doctor asked for something called an IO-infusion needle, described by the media as a kind of power drill that gets right into the bone instead of a vein. Now embarrassed, they asked Lockett if he was ok.

He replied, “I was gonna see if I could get my mouth wiped off.” Then they finally got a vein. Lockett said he had no last words, after which, the warden said, “Let the execution begin.” The sedative was pumped into him, but the IV came loose, and most of it went right into his tissue, not the vein. So, he wasn’t knocked out. He was evidently conscious of what was going on. He then seemed to go to sleep, so, as usual, the lights brightened, and it was time to check if the condemned was completely sedated. He wasn’t. The doctor even pinched him to try and get a reaction. He then said he’s knocked out enough, so they injected the killer part of the cocktail.

Then, when Lockett should have been dead, he twitched. He looked as though he wanted to talk. His legs moved, his hands moved; he was evidently in pain. The warden later said he thought, “My good God, he is coming out of this.” He was. He lurched forward, trying to get off the gurney. At that moment, the witnesses were in utter shock. Lockett’s lawyer even started crying. Lockett was now twisting violently and trying to speak. His heart was only beating 20-something times a minute, but he was very much alive. He finally did manage to speak, saying one word, “Man.” The doctor then lifted up the sheet and saw a massive ball had formed in Lockett’s groin area. That was a ball of drugs. Blood was also running down his thighs. But they didn’t stop. The paramedic told Lockett to take a deep breath as she tried to get the needle back in place.

She then told the doctor, “You’ve hit an artery!” As if things could get any stranger, they then talked about giving Lockett CPR and taking him to the hospital. The paramedic later said that the point was to kill him, not save his life. Subsequently, the doctor asked the warden what to do, to which the warden replied, “Is there another vein available, and if so do you have another set of chemicals back there?” The doctor said no to both questions. It was only then that they decided to stop the execution. That was officially decided, so now the doctor and the paramedic raced to save Lockett’s life. They weren’t fast enough. He died ten minutes later after having a heart attack.

The Lockett family later sued the prison, the executioners, the drug makers, and even two pharmacies. They said the new drugs that were used pretty much constituted “human experimentation”, something the Nazis might have done back in the day. Human rights activists said the state had “disgraced itself before the nation and world.” The execution was called “barbaric” by many. Even the White House said it “fell short of humane standards.” So, why didn’t they just give up and kill him on another day? The reason is that takes time, and a botched execution is a bad look for the authorities.

And in this case, they did after a long time at least stop the execution. It just took too long. If Lockett had survived, unlike the case of Mr. Lee’s bad hanging, he would have been executed at a later date…probably. We’ll explain later why we say probably. Not all cases are alike. Lethal injection became the execution of choice in the USA because it was said to be more “humane and dignified” than getting shot or fried or hanged. But let’s face it, the best way to go would be to have your head chopped off by that highly reliable machine called the guillotine. The authorities seem to think that is barbaric.

But as you’ll now see in gory detail, the electric chair was the worst killing device of them all, way more barbaric than a sharp blade taking off your noggin. The chair that the convicted killer John Louis Evans sat in was actually made by an inmate at a prison. It was nicknamed “Yellow Mama.” Evans was first blasted by 1,900 volts of electricity, which should have killed him. It didn’t, and what witnesses saw was nothing short of terrifying. The official report later said, “Sparks and flames erupted from the electrode. His body slammed against the straps holding and his fist clenched permanently.

A large puff of greyish smoke and sparks poured out from under the hood. An overpowering stench of burnt flesh and clothing began pervading the witness room.” The doctors went over to his smoldering body and declared him very much alive. They then hit him with more shocks, after which witnesses said the “smell of burning flesh was nauseating.” The doctors went over to him again and he was still alive. One doctor then got on the phone with the state governor and said this guy had suffered so much that the execution meets the criteria for cruel and unusual punishment.

This should in any execution case mean it has to be called off, but the governor wasn’t in the mood that day to grant the smoldering man clemency. The final hit actually killed him. A similar thing happened to Jesse Tafero when he was executed in 1990. Generally, when things go right, the condemned person is hit with around 2,000 volts for a period of about 30 seconds. After that, the doctor waits for the body to cool and then goes to check that the guy is dead. In the case of Tafero, it took three jolts to finish him off. It turned out the authorities had used the wrong kind of sponge to put over his head which meant poor conductivity. Old Sparky malfunctioned.

Witnesses said flames rose out of Tafero’s head before his heart finally stopped. One witness later wrote, “Seven minutes is a long time to watch someone burn.” The entire operation actually lasted 13 and a half minutes. As you are now starting to understand, the authorities don’t easily back out of an execution, never mind how bad one gets. But it has happened. In 2018, the state of Alabama tried to kill Doyle Hamm, a man convicted of killing a motel clerk during a robbery. When the big day arrived, they couldn’t find a vein since Hamm had developed a bad case of lymphatic cancer while on death row. For three hours, they prodded him with needles, which Hamm’s lawyer later said constituted torture.

The doctor’s report used in court said, “During this time Mr. Hamm began to hope that the doctor would succeed in obtaining IV access so that Mr. Hamm could ‘get it over with’ because he preferred to die rather than to continue to experience the ongoing severe pain.” He won the case and settled with the state. No way could he be executed again, but he had to spend the rest of his days in prison. It’s said he was the third person ever to survive a modern execution.

Another guy that could put that on his resume was convicted child abductor, Romell Broom. In 2009, the state of Ohio stuck 18 different needles into this man as he howled in pain. He even tried to help them find a vein, while at the same time the people administering the drugs could be seen patting him on the back and saying something along the lines of “There, there.” They couldn’t get the job done, and so decided to call it off that day. But in this case, the condemned man was just given another execution date, even though his lawyers said he’d already been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and he should at least just serve a life sentence.

That didn’t happen. Broom was handed another execution date, but covid got him before the drugs could. The other person to survive lethal injection was named Alva Campbell. This convicted killer had been quite fond of his cigarettes during his life, which resulted in him suffering from lung and prostate cancer and COPD. These diseases made it hard to get the drugs in him. He cried in pain as they stuck needles into him, and after 25 minutes, the execution was called off once they had approval from the governor.

In just about every case, this approval is necessary to stop an execution. A date was set for another attempt, but three months later, Campbell died from his various ailments. Ok, but has anyone ever survived the electric chair? In 1947, 17-year old convicted killer Willy Francis did just that. He beat Old Sparky. It was a sham trial in the first case. The only evidence they had was putting Francis near the scene of the crime. Cops said he had the victim’s wallet, but during his trial, they couldn’t produce evidence to prove it.

Francis’ attorneys hardly supported him at all, asking for no witnesses while not objecting to anything. They didn’t actually defend Francis, who was only 15 years old at the time. When the day came, and he was sent to sit in the chair, this one called “Gruesome Gertie”, the guard who set things up was drunk on the job. The machine worked, which was evident with Francis shouting, “Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe!” behind his leather hood.

He certainly got a very painful shock, but the chair didn’t do the job properly, and they had to call the execution off. His punishment was called cruel and unusual, but prosecutors argued that there was no intention to torture the boy. A young lawyer defended Francis, and he said under constitutional law, Francis should not be subjected to that cruel punishment again. The Supreme Court in this case had to make a decision, the same decision that has been considered for other stories we’ve told you today.

That is, did what happened cause pain that was not necessary and so violate the prisoner’s due process rights or cause cruel and unusual punishment. The decision was 5-4 to put Francis to death again. The court said, “The cruelty against which the Constitution protects a convicted man is cruelty inherent in the method of punishment, not the necessary suffering involved in any method employed to extinguish life humanely.

The fact that an unforeseeable accident prevented the prompt consummation of the sentence cannot, it seems to us, add an element of cruelty to a subsequent execution. This decision was actually used in other cases when people survived a painful execution, only for them to find themselves in the same position months or years later. Francis died in the chair almost exactly one year later.

When asked if he had had any final words, he said, “Nothing at all.” He was pronounced dead after five minutes. Now you need to educate yourself some more and watch “50 Insane Execution and Death Penalty Facts That Will Shock You.” Or, have a look at “The Horrible History of The Death Penalty.”