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Top 10 Horrifically Botched Lethal Injections

by Richard Avis
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Over the past 120 years, the United States has executed almost nine thousand people, and some went better than others. Out of all the ways to kill a criminal, lethal injection has the highest error rate. Over 7% of all lethal injection procedures are botched—compare this to lethal gas at 5% or firing squad at 0%.[1] Out of the many problematic executions in American history, this article will explore ten instances where lethal injection wasn’t quite lethal.

10The Chameleon—Stephen Peter Morin

Stephen Peter Morin was a psychotic serial killer who earned himself the nickname “The Chameleon” due to the multiple aliases he used. He would change identities and slaughter female victims as he traveled the country, crossing nine different states, and eventually reaching a spot on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. He was caught and convicted of the murder of three women, though some believe he killed as many as thirty.[2] In March 1985, Morris was sentenced to die in two different states simultaneously. Seeing logistical problems with that, they decided to simply end the man in Huntsville, Texas.

Morin had a severe history of intravenous drug use, which is perhaps what fueled his insatiable bloodlust. Moreover, his veins were completely shot. After unsuccessful attempts to insert a needle into both of his arms, and one leg, a technician finally located a usable vein after 40 minutes of trying. Eleven minutes later, Morin was dead. The problem was not in the choice of drugs, but rather the mechanical problem of finding a blood vessel free of scar tissue that could pass the deadly cocktail.

Stephen Peter Morin was said to have “found God” in his final months, his last words being “Lord Jesus, I commit my soul to you.” According to prison officials, he is said to have gone peacefully, though it was their most notable and difficult execution to date.

9The Two Hour Attempt—Romell Broom

On September 21, 1984, fourteen-year-old Tryna Middleton and her two friends were walking home from a high school football game. Suddenly, a car without its lights on came towards the girls. The driver, screaming “Come here, bitch!” threatened Tryna with a knife, and dragged her into the car. Two hours later, her body was found in a parking lot, stabbed seven times in the chest and stomach, and raped repeatedly.

After two more unsuccessful abductions involving even younger girls, witnesses were able to get the license plate number of the vehicle. It was quickly traced back to Romell Broom, who voluntarily accepted a DNA test to prove his innocence. The test, however, would prove his guilt instead.[3] He would wait 25 years on death row.

At 2:01 p.m. on September 15, 2009, the medical staff began searching for a vein to administer the drugs. They were unsuccessful for over two grueling hours, forced to take breaks in between attempts. Broom began crying during the attempts, being prodded with needles multiple times, over and over. He even attempted to help technicians find a suitable vein to use, but to no avail. Blaming his past drug use, they soon realized they could not execute Romell Broom with lethal injection—not in a humane way, at least. He was granted a one-week reprieve from the death penalty, and he ate a dinner that night he never expected to.

As of today, Romell Broom remains on Ohio’s death row, serving his 31st year there.

8A Double Dose, Twice as Fast—Stephen McCoy

In October 1980, a man named Robert Edward was having some serious marital troubles. At the request of his ex-wife and her current husband, Stephen McCoy and two others were hired to kill Edward for the sum of $1,000. They slit his car’s tire, when he leaned over to inspect it, he was shot in the head. McCoy’s accomplice, James Paster was the one to pull the trigger, and he insisted the other two commit a murder of their own in a bizarre attempt to prevent them from testifying against him. On New Year’s Eve, the trio came across Cynthia Johnson, an 18-year-old who’s car had broken down. They forced her into the car, raped her, and stabbed her to death. Though McCoy was not the ringleader, he was sentenced to die nonetheless.

A brutal and unexpected allergic reaction would accompany McCoy’s execution. After the drugs were administered, he began to choke and seize. His death throes were so repulsive and lengthy that they caused a male witness to faint, and crash into another observer.[4] After McCoy finally passed on, the Texas Attorney General admitted, “The drugs might have been administered in a heavier dose, or more rapidly.”

7The End of the Clown—John Wayne Gacy

Perhaps the most notorious name on this list, John Wayne Gacy is the infamous “killer clown” convicted of murdering 33 children and young men. After 14 years on death row, and a last meal of KFC and fried shrimp, his appointment in the chamber had arrived. His chosen words were a tasteful, “Kiss my ass!”[5]

When the muscle relaxant pancuronium bromide began to travel through the tubes into Gacy, a pump malfunctioned, resulting in the chemical solidifying in the tube. Ten minutes later the viewing curtain was reopened, and Gacy was put down for good. Anesthesiologists blamed the problem on inexperienced prison staff, saying that proper methods taught in “IV 101” would have prevented the problem. Because of this, Illinois changed its entire method of lethal execution to a less complicated technique.

6Pop Goes the Needle—Raymond Landry

In a drug-hungry scavenge, Raymon Landry decided to rob the local “Dairy Maid” restaurant at gunpoint. During the course of the robbery, $2,300 in cash was stolen, and 33-year-old Kosmas Prittis was shot in the head in front of his wife and children. Landry was found three days later with a bank bag from the restaurant in his home. He received the death penalty after a quick deliberation.

Landry’s arms were both extremely muscular and severely scarred from years of drug abuse, finding a vein proved difficult. The drugs were finally administered, but after two minutes, the syringe exploded out of Landry’s bulging vein, spraying the deadly chemical mixture across the room and towards witnesses.[6] Prison staff were quick to close the viewing curtain as they were ordered to reinsert the catheter. Witnesses reported horrible groans from behind the curtain. Landry was hanging between life and death for 24 minutes before he was finally extinguished.

5Executing an Elder—Brandon Astor Jones

In June 1979 a uniformed police officer was pulling into a service station when he heard gunshots. Rushing inside, he found the body of 29-year-old Roger Tackett with bullets in his arms, legs, and head—murdered for being unable to open the safe. Brandon Astor Jones was arrested immediately, prosecuted, and convicted to death. The family of the victim would spend the next 36 years waiting for his execution.

Ten days shy of his 73rd birthday, Jones was executed as the fifth-oldest inmate ever to die under the nation’s penal code. It took more than an hour to prepare him for his lethal injection. Unable to access the veins in his arms, the executioners asked the anonymous physician for assistance in the killing—violating numerous medical and ethical codes. He or she spent 13 minutes stitching the IV into Jones’ groin area. Six minutes after the drugs began flowing, his eyes bulged open and he fought to raise his head. Using his last bit of strength, Jones looked into the eyes of a witness there—the man who prosecuted him in 1979.[7]

4“It Don’t Work!”—Joseph L. Clark

Of the ten botched lethal injections on this list, three—including this one—originate from Ohio. After Joesph Clark murdered convenience store clerk Donald Harris, he would go on to kill David Manning—a 22-year-old gas station employee—the very next day. After his conviction, and two decades on death row, it was finally his turn in the chamber.

It took over 20 minutes to find a suitable injection point, and once the process began, his vein suddenly collapsed. This caused Clark’s arm to swell to unnatural proportions as the deadly chemicals spilled out of his bloodstream and into the surrounding tissue. In his final terrifying moments, he raised his head from the gurney, shouting “It don’t work, it don’t work!” five times.[8] The curtain was closed as they struggled to complete the execution. Witnesses reported moaning, crying out, and guttural noises. An autopsy would later find 19 puncture marks from failed attempts to find an IV line. It took Ohio 90 minutes to execute Clark.

3Wrong Way Syringe—Charles Walker

Looking for beer money, Charles Walker robbed 21-year-old Kevin Paule and his fiancee Sharon Winker of $40, then shot them both. Walker was put to death in 1990 for this heartless double murder, becoming the first person executed by the State of Illinois since 1962.[9] His last words were, “I’m guilty, I can accept my punishment. I’m sorry I done it, yeah, but it’s done.”

Because of equipment failure and human error, Walker would experience excruciating pain during his execution. A small kink in the plastic tubing prevented the deadly chemicals from reaching his bloodstream, elongating his suffering. In addition, the intravenous needle was inserted upside-down, pointing at Walker’s fingers rather than his heart. The line was eventually de-kinked, and his death came slowly, unbeknownst to the onlookers sitting in the adjacent room.

2Oops! Wrong Chemical—Charles Frederick Warner

Originally scheduled to be put to death the same night as Clayton Lockett (see #1), Charles Frederick Warner was granted an extension while an official investigation examined Lockett’s botched execution. Oklahoma revamped the department, the procedures, and tried again with Mr. Warner.

His last words were, “my body is on fire.” This is probably because he was injected with potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride, the latter is used to stop your heart, while the former is a potassium salt used in mummification and embalming. Prison staff made the mix-up after receiving the wrong shipment, and the vials made it into Warner’s veins. What must have felt like acid pumped though Warner’s veins as he twitched uncontrollably, dying after seven minutes of being mummified alive.[10]

Though he experienced a terribly uncomfortable death, Charles Warner was a man convicted of raping and killing an eleven-month-old infant. Perhaps the mixup was someone’s twisted form of justice.

1Experimental Chemicals—Clayton Lockett

A man named Bobby Bornt was asleep on his couch one afternoon when Clayton Lockett and two others kicked in the door and started beating him with a shotgun. The three fine gentlemen proceeded to ransack the house looking for drugs when an unsuspecting Summer Hair and Stephanie Neiman approached the open door. They duct-taped the girls and locked them in a room with Bornt’s nine-month-old son. Summer Hair was raped by all three men, who then piled them into the truck and drove to a rural location. After digging their graves, Lockett told them, “someone has to go.” Stephanie Neiman refused to swear not to tell police what had happened. She was shot and buried alive. Surviving the ordeal, Neiman and Bornt informed police the following day, and all three offenders were arrested.

The execution of Lockett did not go smoothly. Despite numerous warnings about the experimental drug “midazolam,” Oklahoma scheduled its use on him. Additionally, Lockett had slit his wrist, ingested hidden pills, and attempted to hang himself the morning of the execution.[11] All three methods of suicide proved unsuccessful, and he was tased and dragged to the death chamber. After finally locating a usable vein in Lockett’s groin area, the first drug was administered. He was pronounced unconscious, and the two untested drugs began to enter his bloodstream.

Lockett, however, was not unconscious. He writhed, groaned and convulsed on the table in agony, acid and fire pumping though his body. An excruciating 43 minutes passed, Lockett would scream and twitch, fighting against the restraints as the poison slowly took hold. Death would finally arrive via heart attack, possibly resulting from the overwhelming pain rather than the chemical cocktail itself. His case would mark the longest a prisoner has suffered consciously during a lethal injection execution, and spark an entirely new debate on the effectiveness of the lethal injection method.

Richard is a freelance filmmaker in Los Angeles, CA.


fact checked by Jamie Frater