Last night the State of Alabama cancelled the execution of 61-year-old Doyle Hamm, who has spent 30 years on death row and is suffering from lymphatic cancer.
In response to a lawsuit in which Mr. Hamm alleged the State would not be able to carry out a lethal injection because his medical condition has made his veins inaccessible, the State asserted it could execute him using veins in his legs, which it had never done before. After weeks of litigation, the Supreme Court denied Mr. Hamm’s request to delay the execution around 9 p.m. last night, but shortly before midnight, the State called it off.
Mr. Hamm was convicted of capital murder in the fatal shooting of a hotel clerk in 1987 in Cullman County, Alabama.
In February 2014, Mr. Hamm was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and carcinoma. As a distinguished group of Alabama jurists and state bar association presidents wrote in a letter asking Governor Kay Ivey to halt Mr. Hamm’s execution:
Mr. Hamm has been very ill for a number of years. As a result of his condition and the treatment of it, his veins are not accessible in the way that is required for the humane implementation of Alabama’s lethal injection protocol . . . Alabama adopted lethal injection as its method of execution because it is deemed to be a relatively painless process. Whether that is ever the case for any condemned person, it is highly unlikely to be true for Mr. Hamm.
Mr. Hamm requested an oral injection due to the poor condition of his veins, and a federal court stayed Mr. Hamm’s execution after hearing evidence from medical experts. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ordered an expedited physical examination of Mr. Hamm, which revealed that Doyle Hamm’s veins in his upper extremities were indeed compromised. The district court required the State to agree to only attempt to access the veins in his lower extremities and precluded Mr. Hamm’s counsel from presenting any evidence to establish that this novel specialized protocol would present significant risks of an unnecessarily painful execution.
Governor Ivey refused to grant clemency, and the Supreme Court denied Mr. Hamm’s request for a stay over two dissents. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, wrote in dissent:
The District Court and Eleventh Circuit erroneously premised their rejection of Hamm’s claims on novel understandings about how Hamm’s execution would be carried out—understandings gleaned from a stipulation and an affidavit to which Hamm was given no opportunity to respond. An adversarial process should have tested the risk of “serious illness and needless suffering” . . . presented by the insertion of intravenous catheters into Hamm’s leg or central veins. That method of execution, although it fits within the compass of the State’s execution protocol, has, by all accounts before us, never been tried before in Alabama.
Also, Justice Breyer wrote an opinion saying that he believes the Supreme Court should consider whether the death penalty is constitutional.
There are questions about the reliability of Mr. Hamm’s conviction and sentence due to the ineffectiveness of his trial lawyer. He was sentenced to death after his trial lawyer called only two witnesses at his sentencing trial and presented less than 20 minutes of testimony. Because trial counsel did not investigate Mr. Hamm’s background, the sentencing judge and jury never saw more than 2000 pages of mental health, medical, educational, family, and criminal records showing that Mr. Hamm had a history of head injuries, seizures, and substance abuse. Despite this evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, the postconviction court denied relief by signing an opinion written by the State’s lawyer.