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Ohio's botched executions

Lethal injection proves, in several cases, to cross the line into cruel and unusual punishment.

October 14, 2009

Over the course of two hours, nurses attempted 18 times last month to find a vein in Romell Broom in which to inject the convicted murderer with a lethal combination of drugs. Broom even tried to help them, massaging his arms and straightening tubes. Finally, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland called off the execution -- for the day, at least.

A rare occurrence?

Ohio, 2006: The execution of Joseph Lewis Clark took close to 90 minutes after executioners had trouble finding a vein. "It don't work, it don't work," Clark told them. Eventually, authorities closed the curtains so that the permitted witnesses could not see the continued attempts.

Ohio, 2007: Executioners worked for 90 minutes to insert an intravenous line into Christopher J. Newton, who finally had to ask for a bathroom break.

That's three botched executions of the 14 conducted -- or in the most recent case, attempted -- in Ohio since the beginning of 2006.

After the Broom fiasco, you would think the minimal response from Strickland would be an immediate moratorium on executions until Ohio devised a more humane procedure. The repeated movement of an intravenous needle in tissue already sore from previous attempts is quite painful. Broom's lawyer said afterward that at one point, the needle hit bone.

Instead, while a federal court pondered Broom's case, the state went ahead with plans to execute a 15th death-row inmate last week. Only after a federal court panel delayed that execution until judges could hear arguments about bungled injections did Strickland give the inmate, and another scheduled to die in November, five-month reprieves. He did nothing to delay pending executions in December, January and February.

This page staunchly opposes the death penalty as a troubling moral step by the state. On a practical level, executing prisoners costs more than incarcerating them for life, and it has yet to show value as a crime deterrent. We worry about innocent people being put to death, an act that can never be reversed.

Many people disagree, and we understand why. There is no softening the horror of Broom's crimes. He abducted a 14-year-old girl at knifepoint and then raped and killed her. Even if he endured last month's ordeal 10 times over, the state still wouldn't be putting him through the terror and suffering he inflicted on his victim.

But that's precisely the point. The state is not Broom, nor should we want it to be on our behalf. The survivors of a murder victim often yearn for vindication or simply a sense of closure, and we might too if we were in their shoes. But it is not the job of the state to carry out that desire.

Part of why this nation has constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment is because of the universal agreement that we as a society want to maintain the highest moral character. Lengthy, botched executions are cruel, and Ohio is not the only state to have performed them. In California, executions have been suspended for nearly three years after concerns that a paralytic agent in the injections might be causing some prisoners to suffocate, while still conscious, without being able to show their discomfort. After Strickland issued the reprieve, Ohio authorities suggested lethal injection into the bone marrow as a possible backup procedure. That is no solution to cruelty. Ohio must stop all executions until it has developed a better procedure, and the nation should use that time to ponder whether the death penalty reflects the kind of society we want to be.

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