Execution abandoned after death row prisoner 'repeatedly jabbed' by officials doing lethal injection

Judith Vonberg
Doyle Lee Hamm, who is on death row in Alabama: AP

An attempted execution in Alabama was halted after medical personnel repeatedly jabbed the death row inmate in the ankles, lower legs and groin but failed to find a usable vein, according to a court filing by his lawyer.

The dramatic night began with a temporary stay of execution at around 6pm local time – lifted by the US Supreme Court just three hours later – and ended in confusion as 61-year-old Doyle Lee Hamm was returned to his cell shortly before midnight on Thursday.

Lawyer Bernard Harcourt, who has represented Hamm for 28 years, said he was seeking information about what happened during the attempted execution.

"He's in great pain from yesterday evening, physically, from all of the attempts to access his veins in his lower extremities and in his groin," Mr Harcourt said.

He has long argued that his client, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014, should not face lethal injection as his veins were “severely compromised” due to the cancer and treatment, and the procedure would cause severe and unnecessary pain.

Two UN human rights experts echoed those concerns earlier this month, warning that “attempts to insert needles into Mr Hamm’s veins to carry out the lethal injection would inflict pain and suffering that may amount to torture”.

Amnesty International has also called for Hamm’s sentence to be commuted, arguing that the state of his veins may render lethal injection unconstitutional.

Both organisations have also expressed concern that Hamm may not have received a fair trial for the murder of motel clerk Patrick Cunningham in 1987.

Speculating late on Thursday evening that “they probably couldn’t find a vein and had been poking him for over two and a half hours”, Mr Harcourt described the events as “simply unconscionable”.

Commissioner Jeff Dunn of the Alabama Department of Corrections, speaking in the early hours of Friday morning, said he had been informed by the medical staff that “they didn’t in their judgement think that they could obtain the appropriate veinous access before the warrant would expire” at midnight.

But he then said the sole reason for halting the execution was “the lateness of the hour” and the prospect of the warrant expiring.

Asked whether the problem with finding a vein could recur in any future attempt, the Commissioner said: “I wouldn’t necessarily characterise what we had tonight as a problem… it was more of a time issue.”

US District Judge Karon Bowdre has since ordered a medical examination of Hamm and directed the state to obtain material related to the attempted execution.

According to Amnesty International, 61 of the 1,468 executions in the USA since the Supreme Court approved new capital laws in 1976 have been carried out in Alabama.

Associated Press contributed to this report