With the recent lethal injection debacle in Oklahoma what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment jumped back into death penalty spotlight. The botched execution of Clayton Lockett sparked debate about the use of untested drug cocktails. Lockett lived for 43 minutes after administered the first drug, CNN affiliate KFOR reported. According reporters, Lockett managed to say, "Man," "I'm not," and "something's wrong." Others at the scene said that Lockett was still alive and lifted his head before prison officials shut the blinds so onlookers couldn't see. Lockett is just one among many whose execution went terribly wrong.

Below is a brief overview of the horrific incidents regarding the death penalty:

Lethal Injection

Christopher J. Newton—Newton laid on the gurney 90 minutes while medics trying to find a vein stabbed him at least ten times until they found it. Newton was granted a bathroom break the search took so long. When the drug cocktail was administered, witnesses reported that Newton’s stomach heaved his chin and mouth twitched and he suffered at least two mild convulsions on the gurney. It took Newton sixteen minutes to die nearly twice time considered normal.[1]

Brian Steckel—Steckel was wide-awake for twelve minutes when the injection machine malfunctioned. The machine was switched to the backup line, but the sedative drug was not administered and Steckel remained conscious as the paralytic pancuronium bromide took effect. Heart-stopping potassium chloride was then injected leaving Steckel unable to move or talk while drug flowed through his body. Technicians described the feeling as “having your veins set on fire.”[2]

Electric Chair

William Kemmler—Kemmler was the first man in the world to be executed by electric chair. When the switch was thrown, Kemmler’s body became rigid and ten seconds later Kemmler was declared dead. However, one of the doctors noticed a cut on Kemmler’s hand was bleeding indicating that he was still alive. The current was restarted in order to finish the job. Fluid seeped from Kemmler’s mouth and ran down his beard as he began to groan repeatedly and loudly as he started to regain consciousness. Again, the electricity was restarted and Kemmler once again convulsed, ceasing the noise coming from his lips as he died. Even though Kemmler was dead a sizzling sound that sounded like meat cooking steamed from the chair filling the room with smoke that smelled as if hair was burning.[3]

Gas Chamber

Jimmy Lee Gray—Gray sat in the death chair as the cyanide crystals were dropped into a dish beneath him containing sulphuric acid and distilled water, creating the lethal gas. As the gas reached his lungs, he began to choke and gag for about eight minutes. Then, Gray’s unrestrained head began to smash into a steel pole placed directly behind the death chair. Witnesses counted eleven groans from the dying man. The prison maintained that Gray had died painlessly and was brain dead by the time he began his self-destructive episode.[4]


George Painter—Painter stood over the gallows trapdoor with a white hood over his head. Then the trap door swung open dropping his body through. After the rope became taut, it snapped and sent Painter's body crashing to the ground. Jailers carried Painter’s body back to the platform where doctors confirmed that his neck had snapped, but he was not dead.

Then, while a new rope was being placed around Painter's neck blood began to turn the hood quickly turned the white gown the same color. As the blood flowed, the trap door sprung once more and Painter’s body dropped through a second time. This time, he died.[5]

Tom Ketchum—Ketchum dropped through the gallows trap door and fell directly to the ground as the rope was too long for a man of his size. In addition, the rope was also thin and cord-like. Nevertheless, the execution was a success as thin rope sliced through Ketchum's neck slicing his head off, which was followed by an eruption of blood from his headless body.[6]

Firing Squad

Wallace Wilkerson—Wilkerson was seated on a chair about thirty feet from the shooters after declining a blindfold and restraints. A small white square was pinned over Wilkerson’s heart as a target. Then, Wilkerson took a deep breath and drew himself up straight in the chair. The action moved the square an inch or two upward just before the executioners fired. One bullet shattered his left arm, while the rest punched into his torso, failing to instantly kill the man. Wilkerson, meanwhile, leapt from the chair and hit the ground screaming “Oh my God! My God! They have missed!” Wilkerson bled out from his wounds twenty-seven minutes later.[7]

Follow Up

Later in the week, I'll post an essay about religiosity and the death penalty, including the stance of religious denominations.

[1] Timeline of Newton execution, Akron Beacon Journal, Associated Press, May 25, 2007

[2] Brian Steckel, the Driftwood Killer Executed, The News Journal, November 4, 2005

[3] Marlee Macleod, The Electric Chair, <crime library>, Criminal Minds and Methods, http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/not_guilty/chair/5.html

[4] Donald A. Cabana, Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner,  UPNE, 1998, page 8

[5] Robert Loerzel, The Murder Case of George Painter, Alchemy of Bones: Chicago's Luetgert Murder Case of 1897, University of Illinois Press, May 29, 2007

[6] Jeffrey Burton, Dynamite and Six-Shooter, Sunstone Press, 2007

[7] Gilbert King, Cruel and Unusual History, The New York Times, April 23, 2008

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Comment by Donald R Barbera on May 6, 2014 at 9:18am

Luara--Often the juries hands are tied because of mandatory sentencing guidelines. Sadly, our justice system is broken. For instance, George Zimmerman is walking free after killing a teenager in a bizarre case of justice in Florida. On the other hand, Marrisa Alexander received a 10-year jail sentence for firing  a warning shot in the air, harming no one, to ward her abusive husband. Laws should be the same from one state to another. It is ludicrous that what would be a misdemeanor in most states is a felony in another.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on May 6, 2014 at 9:06am

Luara--Most Scandinavian countries handle their prisoners better than the US. They actually rehabilitate many. Their recidivism rate is nearly and 1/8 of the US. Yes, the death row inmates are largely black. That is not to say that whites get off the hook--they don't. But when counted proportionally in according their representation in society, blacks are far more likely to be over represented.

Comment by Luara on May 5, 2014 at 3:03pm

And death sentences are justified by very arbitrary jury verdicts.  Which I've heard are racially biased, and also probably biased against males, since juries are probably more reluctant to condemn women.

I liked how Norway handled Breivik.  He's housed in a decent place, but he won't get out and he can't proselytize from prison. 

Comment by Donald R Barbera on May 5, 2014 at 10:20am

Luara--Are some of these killers and rapist worthy of being dead? Absolutely! However, unless we were standing there and took pictures of what happen we have no real knowledge of what happened. There are too many ways to beat the system both by the police and the perpetrator. Some of the police are corrupt and will hide evidence, as will the District Attorney, which results in the verdict being turned over. So, we have no way of knowing of knowing for sure. Also, executioners can often be vindictive and slip some degree to cause maximum discomfort and pain.

Comment by Luara on May 5, 2014 at 9:56am

It angers me to see the state save a prisoner so they can kill him later.  That is hypocrisy at its highest level

Or a thirst for absolute control - as if someone loses all rights when they're convicted of a crime.  But they don't - they only lose the right to enough freedom to commit the crime. 

I've watched various crime shows, seen some of the people on Death Row, and thought "that person isn't worth the food being used to keep them alive".  Some of them really are monsters. 

But we really aren't the judge of someone else's worth. 

Comment by Donald R Barbera on May 5, 2014 at 7:35am

Joan & Luara--You both make excellents regarding the administering of drugs, how it is done and the already pain among both families. I believe suicide is a persons right. Prisoners need a "Do Not Resuscitate" right also. I angers me to see the state save a prisoner so they can kill him later. That is hypocrisy at its highest level operating among regard for human life. It is taking away what I consider a fundamental right to end one's life. Since the USA is among the top five executioners in the world, I can see why other countries don't sell us drugs. Canada won't even return a prisoner to the US if they are facing the death penalty. In my next post, I will address many of the things brought up on this site.

Comment by Luara on May 5, 2014 at 4:38am

There are a couple reasons why painless executions by lethal injection are difficult. 

- Other countries won't sell drugs to the USA that might be used in executions.  So different drugs have to be used in executions, and they aren't always easy to obtain.

- Doctors don't do the executions, it's done by prison staff and often botched.

However, the whole concept of being "concerned" that executions be "free of suffering", is whitewashing. There is so much suffering in the rest of the process, as Camus pointed out.  And suffering for the family of the executed person. 

Comment by Joan Denoo on May 4, 2014 at 11:23pm

Technicians can inject drugs to kill large animals. I have been with several beloved pets that have been put down; I never witnessed suffering in the procedure. Do any animals suffer because of the chemicals? Is it possible to use drugs or methods that are not so barbaric on humans? 

Then, of course, one has to look at the death sentences as a state function. Is it moral for a state to plan and put into action that which will kill a human being? Our justice system is so flawed, how can one agree to the death penalty? 

"...research has failed to provide scientific proof that executions have a greater deterrent effect than life imprisonment. Such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming. The evidence as a whole still gives no positive support to the deterrent hypothesis.

"The key to real and true deterrence is to increase the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction.

"The death penalty is a harsh punishment, but it is not harsh on crime."

~ Amnesty International

Comment by Luara on May 4, 2014 at 10:57pm

I do think it's a good idea to allow people sentenced to life without parole, the option of suicide.  There wouldn't be the legal costs associated with killing them against their will.  What do you think? 

Anyone has a right to end their life - not just condemned prisoners. 

I wonder if the death penalty is linked to religiousness - the Southern states in the  USA have it.  Many religious people oppose it, but that doesn't add up to Southern states opposing it.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on May 4, 2014 at 10:28pm
Laura--Camus is absolutely right. The execution of a person by the state is the ultimate premeditated murder. I am with you when comes to the tragedy to both families. Sure, the deeds that put the prisoners in the position to be executed often heinous, brutal and horrific, but to return violence for violence is hypocritical. I live in Texas where executions are part of the local terrain. Texas leads the country in executions and has done since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Texas also leads the nation death row exonerations. That would seem to stop the capital punishment thirst in the state. To me, making even one mistake is too much, but when there are ten or twenty exonerations, that should make clear that more than likely innocent persons have been put to death.

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