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Too Old and Too Sick to Execute? No Such Thing in Ohio.

Weathered Hands
Weathered Hands
Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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November 17, 2017

The famous appellate judge Richard Posner once wrote, “A civilized society locks up [criminals] until age makes them harmless, but it does not keep them in prison until they die.” The state of Ohio apparently hasn’t heard of Judge Posner, as they went one step further and tried to execute an elderly Alva Campbell and failed.

Ohio’s lethal injection team spent more than 30 minutes poking Alva Campbell’s decrepit body in search of any decent vein into which they could inject their lethal cocktail to no avail. They finally relented — but only temporarily.

Hours later, Gov. John Kasich announced not a commutation — or a plan to investigate what went wrong — but that Campbell’s execution would be rescheduled for 2019.

It’s a travesty of justice that Ohio’s bungled attempt at executing Alva Campbell was both predictable and avoidable. Campbell’s attorneys had in fact informed the governor and courts that their client’s abysmal health made him a uniquely poor candidate for lethal injection.

Campbell has severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, uses a walker, relies on an external colostomy bag, requires four breathing treatments a day, and may have lung cancer. In a medical examination of Campbell before the execution attempt, doctors failed to “find veins suitable for inserting an IV on either of Campbell’s arms.” Ohio’s only answer to the concerns of Campbell’s lawyers was to give Campbell a “wedged shape pillow” to keep him slightly upright through the execution.

It was predictable and avoidable not only because of information furnished to the state by the defense, but because Ohio had already committed a similar bungle in 2009 when it failed to find a suitable vein to execute Rommell Broom after sticking him with needles for over two hours.

The ability to find a suitable vein is basic to lethal injection. When it cannot be done — because of lack of training and qualifications of the lethal-injection team or the health of the prisoner — the process becomes impossible and the risk of a failure or botch undeniable.

Ohio has earned its execution infamy over time.

The state’s lethal-injection team’s inability to find a suitable vein led to the botched execution of Joseph Clark in 2006, who raised his head from the gurney during the execution to say, “It don’t work. It don’t work.” Ohio persisted, working for another 30 minutes to find another vein before resuming the execution. Media witnesses heard “moaning, crying, and guttural noises” before the deed was finally done 90 minutes after it had begun.

The botched two-hour execution of Christopher Newton in 2007 also stemmed from the execution team’s inability to access a suitable vein. The state’s botched execution of Dennis McGuire in 2014 has been attributed to the use of midazolam — great if you need a sedative for a medical procedure but unsuitable for executions.

The takeaway should be clear. Ohio cannot be trusted to use the death penalty, as time and time again the state fails and causes needless pain and unconstitutional torture. But Ohio is forging ahead.

The state’s schedule of more than two dozen lethal-injections through 2022 gives Ohio the dubious distinction of maintaining the longest list of upcoming executions in the nation. A second attempt to take Campbell’s life is now set for 2019, while Rommell Broom’s new date is in 2020. Last year, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Ohio could attempt to execute Broom, yet again, over a powerful dissent pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court more than a century ago made clear that executions involving “torture or lingering death” would violate the Eighth Amendment.

With its record of three botched executions and two bungled attempts, it’s time for Ohio to stop its unjust assembly line of death. It should reconsider whether it needs to execute prisoners so old and infirm that they can be safely imprisoned until they pass naturally. It should reconsider whether it is even possible to carry out executions without an unacceptable risk of torture or lingering death.

If the state of Ohio actually reckons with this question, they will find the answer to it is no. It is not possible to carry out executions without risking torture or unlawful killing. To paraphrase Joseph Clark’s last words, it just doesn’t work.

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