In what may have been the most horrifically bungled execution in United States history, the state of Ohio in 2009 inserted an IV needle into a prisoner 18 times before finally giving up.
The ordeal, which as the Washington Post reports involved plenty of screaming, crying, and bleeding, made Romell Broom the first prisoner in the country whose lethal injection was called off because officials could not find a suitable vein. But on Wednesday, after five years of legal back-and-forth, the Ohio State Supreme Court offered Broom a fresh distinction: He may be the first inmate to get subjected to the grisly process twice. In a 4–3 decision issued amid signs of a broader national rethink of capital punishment, justices decided a do-over wouldn't count as punishing the man twice for the same crime.
When the US Supreme Court ruled last summer that lethal injection does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment—even if the drug cocktails employed by state corrections officials might be shady—the justices' decision came in the wake of two of the most drawn-out and sickening execution scenes ever. In 2014, Oklahoma officials tried to stick Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma with a needle for 43 minutes before succeeding. In Broom's case, they gave up after somewhere in between 95 minutes and two hours.
To be sure, Broom was convicted of a heinous crime: In 1984, an Ohio jury decided, he raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl who was walking home from a football game.
But what happened to Broom in the execution chamber was atrocious in its own right.
At first, two officials took three stabs at each of Broom's arms with a catheter. After two more tries, the prisoner started screaming. One more try later, after catching a vein, one of the officials ran out of the room saying "no" when asked if she was OK. (By no, blood was trickling down Broom's arm.) At one point, there was a 20–25 minute break while the team tried to figure out what they should do.
Still, because the team was unable to get the poison inside the IV during any of its attempts, the judges ruled that the execution was never actually carried out, so giving it another try wouldn't count as double jeopardy. (The majority cited a 1947 US Supreme Court decision, Francis v. Resweber, finding that convicted murderer Willie Francis could be electrocuted a second time—which he was—after a first attempt did not kill him.)
The Ohio ruling comes in the same week that capital punishment reared its head as an issue in the 2016 presidential race. At a town hall meeting between the two Democratic candidates on Sunday, Ricky Jackson, who escaped his initial Ohio death penalty sentence on a technicality and was later exonerated, asked Clinton about her own stance.
"You know, this is such a profoundly difficult question," she told the man who spent 39 years behind bars and almost died for a murder he didn't commit. "And what I have said—and what I continue to believe—is that the states have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give any defendant all of the rights a defendant should have, all of the support that the defendant's lawyer should have. And I have said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states themselves began to eliminate the death penalty."
Clinton finished by indicating that she does support the death penalty in cases of "really heinous" crimes, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Oklahoma City bombing. Not to be outdone, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump said last year that he'd would sign an executive order mandating the death penalty for convicted cop killers. (Neither major party frontrunner's campaign immediately responded to an email request for comment.)
But again, what happened to Broom was uniquely disturbing. Just take a look at the following passage from Wednesday's State Supreme Court decision (PDF):
By this time, Broom was in a great deal of pain from the puncture wounds, which made it difficult for him to move or stretch his arms. The second session commenced with three medical team members—9, 17, and 21—examining Broom's arms and hands for possible injection sites. For the first time, they also began examining areas around and above his elbow as well as his legs. They also reused previous insertion sites, and as they continued inserting catheter needles into already swollen and bruised sites, Broom covered his eyes and began to cry from the pain. Director Voorhies remarked that he had never before seen an inmate cry during the process of venous access.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice William M. O'Neill argued that the sordid tale "chills [him] to the core."
"I believe as a moral and constitutional matter that subjecting Broom to a second execution attempt after even one extremely painful and unsuccessful attempt is precisely the sort of 'lingering death' that the United States Supreme Court recognized as cruel within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment 125 ago," he wrote.
A spokesman for Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, who as Ohio's sitting governor enjoys a sizable influence over Broom's fate, said Wednesday that Kasich had not yet seen a petition calling for Broom's sentence to be commuted to life in prison.
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