Capitol punishment has made plenty of news in Colorado lately, thanks to a failed attempt to ban the practice and 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler's pledge to seek seek the death penalty against accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.
But what about when executions go wrong? CU Professor Michael Radelet assembled a long list of examples, from which we chose nine startling stories, supplemented by one from Westword's archives. Get the details below.
Note that the text for the following items is culled from Radelet's item "Examples of Post-Furman Botched Executions," shared by the Death Penalty Information Center, except the final item, derived from Alan Prendergast's 2012 post "Eddie Ives's botched execution and replacing the noose with the gas chamber."
Frank J. Coppola
August 10, 1982. Virginia. Frank J. Coppola. Electrocution. Although no media representatives witnessed the execution and no details were ever released by the Virginia Department of Corrections, an attorney who was present later stated that it took two 55-second jolts of electricity to kill Coppola. The second jolt produced the odor and sizzling sound of burning flesh, and Coppola's head and leg caught on fire. Smoke filled the death chamber from floor to ceiling with a smoky haze.
Jimmy Lee Gray
Sept. 2, 1983. Mississippi. Jimmy Lee Gray. Asphyxiation. Officials had to clear the room eight minutes after the gas was released when Gray's desperate gasps for air repulsed witnesses. His attorney, Dennis Balske of Montgomery, Alabama, criticized state officials for clearing the room when the inmate was still alive. Said noted death penalty defense attorney David Bruck, "Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while the reporters counted his moans (eleven, according to the Associated Press)." Later it was revealed that the executioner, Barry Bruce, was drunk.
April 22, 1983. Alabama. John Evans. Electrocution. After the first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames erupted from the electrode attached to Evans's leg. The electrode burst from the strap holding it in place and caught on fire. Smoke and sparks also came out from under the hood in the vicinity of Evans's left temple. Two physicians entered the chamber and found a heartbeat. The electrode was reattached to his leg, and another jolt of electricity was applied. This resulted in more smoke and burning flesh. Again the doctors found a heartbeat. Ignoring the pleas of Evans's lawyer, a third jolt of electricity was applied. The execution took fourteen minutes and left Evans's body charred and smoldering.
December 13, 1988. Texas. Raymond Landry. Lethal Injection. Pronounced dead 40 minutes after being strapped to the execution gurney and 24 minutes after the drugs first started flowing into his arms. Two minutes after the drugs were administered, the syringe came out of Landry's vein, spraying the deadly chemicals across the room toward witnesses. The curtain separating the witnesses from the inmate was then pulled, and not reopened for fourteen minutes while the execution team reinserted the catheter into the vein. Witnesses reported "at least one groan." A spokesman for the Texas Department of Correction, Charles Brown (sic), said, "There was something of a delay in the execution because of what officials called a 'blowout.' The syringe came out of the vein, and the warden ordered the (execution) team to reinsert the catheter into the vein."
Continue for more examples of executions gone horribly wrong.
Jesse Joseph Tafero
May 4, 1990. Florida. Jesse Joseph Tafero. Electrocution. During the execution, six-inch flames erupted from Tafero's head, and three jolts of power were required to stop his breathing. State officials claimed that the botched execution was caused by "inadvertent human error" — the inappropriate substitution of a synthetic sponge for a natural sponge that had been used in previous executions. They attempted to support this theory by sticking a part of a synthetic sponge into a "common household toaster" and observing that it smoldered and caught fire.
Stephen Peter Morin
March 13, 1985. Texas. Stephen Peter Morin. Lethal Injection. Because of Morin's history of drug abuse, the execution technicians were forced to probe both of Morin's arms and one of his legs with needles for nearly 45 minutes before they found a suitable vein.
March 25, 1997. Florida. Pedro Medina. Electrocution. A crown of foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution, filling the execution chamber with a stench of thick smoke and gagging the two dozen official witnesses. An official then threw a switch to manually cut off the power and prematurely end the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina's chest continued to heave until the flames stopped and death came. After the execution, prison officials blamed the fire on a corroded copper screen in the headpiece of the electric chair, but two experts hired by the governor later concluded that the fire was caused by the improper application of a sponge (designed to conduct electricity) to Medina's head.
May 24, 1989. Texas. Stephen McCoy. Lethal Injection. He had such a violent physical reaction to the drugs (heaving chest, gasping, choking, back arching off the gurney, etc.) that one of the witnesses (male) fainted, crashing into and knocking over another witness. Houston attorney Karen Zellars, who represented McCoy and witnessed the execution, thought the fainting would catalyze a chain reaction. The Texas Attorney General admitted the inmate "seemed to have a somewhat stronger reaction," adding "The drugs might have been administered in a heavier dose or more rapidly."
Rickey Ray Rector
January 24, 1992. Arkansas. Rickey Ray Rector. Lethal Injection. It took medical staff more than fifty minutes to find a suitable vein in Rector's arm. Witnesses were kept behind a drawn curtain and not permitted to view this scene, but reported hearing Rector's eight loud moans throughout the process. During the ordeal Rector (who suffered from serious brain damage) helped the medical personnel find a vein. The administrator of State's Department of Corrections medical programs said (paraphrased by a newspaper reporter) "the moans did come as a team of two medical people that had grown to five worked on both sides of his body to find a vein." The administrator said "That may have contributed to his occasional outbursts." The difficulty in finding a suitable vein was later attributed to Rector's bulk and his regular use of antipsychotic medication.
Ives, a barber and burglar, had been convicted of the fatal shooting of a cop after Denver police crashed an illegal booze party on Curtis Street. (A second officer was wounded in the 1928 shooting, only to be slain a few days later by a nurse at Denver General Hospital who happened to be his spurned lover; Denver's scandal-crazy dailies pumped that case into a Roaring Twenties version of "the crime of the century," as detailed in my 2003 feature "Love Crazy.") He managed to stall his execution for months by pretending to be insane, dipping his chow in the toilet in his cell and babbling in strange tongues.
After that ploy failed and he was pronounced sane, Ives won another delay when a riot at the state penitentiary gutted three cell houses and left twelve dead, including seven guards. One of the casualties was Jack Eeles, 77, who'd been the prison's hangman for thirty years.
Ives, who weighed only eighty pounds, had a longstanding belief that he was going to beat the noose. "Hell," he reportedly told a Denver detective years before he got the death sentence, "they couldn't hang me if they wanted to. A noose couldn't crack my neck. I'm too small to spring the trap."
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But time ran out for Ives on January 10, 1930. He was escorted to the gallows, the noose tightened around his neck. A guard pulled a lever that sent a weight hurtling down a chute. The weight was supposed to pull the rope taut; then the prisoner would break his neck as he fell through the trap. But Ives was too light. As the weight fell, he went hurtling toward the ceiling. The rope jumped off the pulley and Ives fell to the floor, gasping for breath.
"You can't hang a man twice," he said.
But they did. According to one witness, it took three attempts. Ives was strangled for 23 minutes before he was pronounced dead. At that time, the executions were closed to the press, but word leaked out of his slow and excruciating demise. "Colorado has one of the most ghastly hanging machines possible," Thomas Tynan, a former warden for the penitentiary, told the Rocky Mountain News. "More than half of the men executed have not been hanged at all. They have strangled."