Another Botched Lethal Injection, Another Official Refusal to Accept Responsibility for Failure in the Execution Process

Posted in: Criminal Procedure

Another lethal injection gone awry. The story is as troubling as it is familiar.

Wednesday’s execution of Thomas Eugene Creech added the latest chapter to lethal injection’s gruesome history. Once touted as America’s most humane execution method, lethal injection has turned out to be its least reliable one. Once touted as a model of efficiency in the grim business of state killing, lethal injection is now marked by mayhem.

This time the story of lethal injection’s failure played out in Idaho, a state which has only put three people to death in the last fifty years. The last of them was in 2012.

Wednesday’s execution at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution near Boise had to be stopped when the execution team failed to establish an IV line needed to carry the lethal injection drugs. Creech, who was returned to death row after that failure, has been there for almost fifty years. He is one of eight people awaiting execution in Idaho.

He is there because, as the United States Supreme Court put it in a 1993 decision, “Thomas Creech has admitted to killing or participating in the killing of at least 26 people. The bodies of 11 of his victims—who were shot, stabbed, beaten, or strangled to death—have been recovered in seven States…. Creech’s most recent victim was David Dale Jensen, a fellow inmate in the maximum-security unit of the Idaho State Penitentiary.”

Creech pled guilty to first degree murder in the Jensen case. After a sentencing hearing, an Idaho trial judge found that Creech had “exhibited utter disregard for human life” and sentenced him to death.

As the Associated Press described the scene when Idaho tried to carry out that sentence, Creech was “wheeled into the execution chamber at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution on a gurney at 10 a.m. Wednesday…. The execution team was made up entirely of volunteers who, according to Idaho execution protocols, were required to have at least three years of medical experience, such as having been a paramedic.”

Witnesses said that medical workers “used vein finders, hot compresses and blood-pressure cuffs to get access to veins.”

“For nearly an hour,” the AP continues, “Thomas Eugene Creech lay strapped to a table in an Idaho execution chamber as medical team members poked and prodded at his arms and legs, hands and feet, trying to find a vein through which they could end his life.”

According to the AP, “Three medical team members tried eight times to establish an IV…. In some cases, they couldn’t access the vein, and in others they could but had concerns about vein quality.”

After these failures, the prison warden told them to give up.

Difficulties in accessing veins are a regular feature of lethal injection executions in this country.

For example, on May 11, 2022, during Arizona’s execution of Clarence Dixon, as AZCentral notes, “the execution team had trouble getting IVs into Dixon, who grimaced and appeared to be in pain while this was happening.… [E]xecution team members took 25 minutes to insert IVs into Dixon’s body, eventually resorting to making an incision and inserting an IV into Dixon’s groin. Dixon was grimacing and appeared to be in pain while the execution team attempted to insert the IVs.”

Two months later when Alabama executed Joe Nathan James, the execution team had to make many attempts to set an IV. As the Death Penalty Information Center says “The estimated 3 to 3½ hours between the initiation of efforts to set the execution IV to the time of James’ death was the longest botched lethal-injection execution since the method came into use in the U.S. in 1982.”

And, to offer one more example, in November 2022, Arizona officials again ran into problems when they tried to execute Murray Hooper. “The Arizona Department of Corrections,” AZCentral reported, “struggled to insert the intravenous needles that deliver lethal drugs during an execution.… Witnesses also reported seeing execution team members attempt and fail to insert IVs into both of Hooper’s arms before finally resorting to inserting a catheter into Hooper’s femoral vein near his groin.”

Problems accessing veins arise, as USA Today observes, from a variety of factors, “including dehydration, stress, room temperature and certain illnesses…. Another problem may be that the person inserting the IV line during an execution lacks experience.”

In Creech’s case, his history of diabetes, hypertension, and edema made the kind of difficulty that Idaho officials encountered during his execution predictable.

They went ahead anyway.

Whatever the cause of lethal injections problems, each of the executions described above involved “a breakdown in, or departure from… the norms, expectations, and advertised virtues” of an execution method. Each of them was marked by “unanticipated problems or delays that caused, at least arguably, unnecessary agony for the prisoner or that reflect gross incompetence of the executioner.”

But in response to those problems, state officials typically insist that the executions were conducted in accordance with their state’s execution protocol. They can do so because protocols are broad and ambiguous enough to give executioners a kind of blank check that brings lingering, fraught deaths into the fold of legally acceptable executions.

They can also do so because states like Idaho go to great lengths to keep their protocols secret. And even when an execution team does the right thing and stops an execution as it did in Creech’s case, the strategy of official denial and obfuscation seems to be irresistible.

Thus, after Creech’s execution, Josh Tewalt, director of the Idaho Department of Corrections, downplayed the significance of what happened. He defended the medical team, saying they acted professionally by calling off the execution.

He refused to accept the characterization of what Creech endured as a botched execution and insisted that the execution team’s efforts to establish an IV line

“I think it would be wrong to call it a failure,” Tewalt added. “They did their level best in a professional way that was respectful of the process.”

In the end, what sustains lethal injection’s dismal record as an execution technique is this pattern of denial and evasion, this refusal to name what happens when executions go wrong, and to accept responsibility. Instead of acknowledging the systemic problems that have long plagued this method of execution, state officials write them off as aberrations, insisting that it would be wrong to call executions like Creech’s failures.

Despite that denial, Creech’s attorneys secured a stay of any future execution from a federal judge about a half-hour after Idaho officials called off their attempt to kill their client. Unlike Tewalt, they did not mince words, telling the judge that the execution team had “badly botched” their client’s date with death.

Neither Creech nor anyone else should ever again face a lethal injection execution. It is long past time to acknowledge its ongoing, inescapable failures and stop subjecting people on death row to its particular form of cruelty.

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