National Coalition to

Abolish the Death Penalty

90 million Americans believe the death penalty is wrong. We mobilize them to end the death penalty state by state.
Join the Movementnavigateright

The Execution of the Terminally Ill

The execution of terminally ill inmates reveals the true purpose of capital punishment - retribution. With chronic illness plaguing inmates across the U.S., partly due to restrictions in medical services, and extensive state appeal processes, inmate are aging and increasingly legal leaders and advocate are confronted with the question — is it humane to execute a terminally ill inmate? 

The aging death row population has been growing. In 2000, the sixty and older population consisted of 2.3%, whereas the fifty to fifty-nine population was 11.1%  In 2009, inmates between the ages of fifty and fifty-nine increased to 21.1%. This exists within the context of only 15% being executed since 1977, while 40% are waiting on appeals and growing older. Moreover, experts explain that old age comes early in prison populations, with the typical inmate entering the system in poor health, and prison conditions further eroding at the physical and mental health of the individual. As a result of these factors there is a growing population of geriatrics across state death row populations. The following accounts provide insight into terminally ill inmates approaching their scheduled executions.  

Jimmy Dale Bland

Bland has diagnosed with a fatal case of lung cancer, that spread to this brain. His physicians put him on a treatment regimen of radiation and chemotherapy, predicting he would live as little as six months. During the last months of his life, Bland appealed his execution, arguing that executing the terminally ill violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and usual punishment. Jonathan Turley, constitutional law professor at George Washington University School of Law explains that Bland’s claims of violation of the Eighth Amendment failed uniformly, and that was reflected in the Supreme Courts rejection of Bland’s appeal. However, Bland maintained that the Supreme Court, in some instances, has been willing to restrict the death penalty when applied to juveniles or the mentally disabled, but fails to extend sympathy for the elderly and terminally ill. Advocates and leaders in abolition have began to challenge the objective of executions. Dianne Rust-Tierney, director of the NCADP, has claimed that the logic of deterrence in the case of the terminally ill fails, “No one is going to argue that he's still dangerous.” Rust-Tierney furthers that, although it is understood that the objective of deterrence no longer stands, “there is something unsettling about the government doggedly getting its pound of flesh whether or not it matters anymore.” Jimmy Dale Bland was executed on 6/26/07.

Vernon Madison

Madison had experienced multiple strokes over the span of multiple years, leading to a chronic condition of vascular dementia. To compound this Madison also faces other health conditions— legally blindness, incontinence, limited ability to walk, and slurred speech. The outcome of Madison’s chronic condition was the inability to remember the crime he had committed, leading to a scheduled execution. Madison’s attorneys argue that due to the inability to rationally understand the reason for being executed, the execution could not take place. In 2016 the federal appeals court ruled that due Madison was incompetent to be executed due to his lack of understanding of the crime he was convicted. Unlike Jimmy Dale Bland, the court rationalized that executing a person currently suffering from dementia would be cruel and unusual punishment. Following this decision the Supreme Court overturned the ruling of the lower court. Comparing the Jimmy Dale Bland’s case to Vernon Madison’s case reveals the discretionary process of distinguishing between forms of terminal and chronic illness, and the process of deeming one over the other a matter of cruel and unusual punishment.

Alva Campbell

Campbell, incapacitated on Ohio death-row, 69 years old was diagnosed with severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, making him terminally ill. This chronic illness inhibits his ability to walk without assistance, causes his reliance  on a colostomy bag, attached to the side of his body, and requires four breathing treatments daily. In addition to this Campbell is also allergic to midazolam, commonly the first drug used in lethal injection protocols. This led Campbell to challenge the constitutionality of Ohio’s lethal injection protocol. He claimed that his health conditions increase the risk of failing to find a vein for lethal injection, heightening the potential for suffering during the execution. However, the Ohio Federal courts denied Campbell’s challenge. The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections claims that medical accommodations will be made for Campbell during his execution. Campbell’s attorney, David Stebbins, objected, claiming that “All of this in an attempt to execute an old and frail man who is no longer a threat to anyone… Killing Alva Campbell is simply not necessary.” In the attorneys legal briefs the lawyers argued that the medical condition sets a stage for an executions that would violate Campbell’s constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Once the scheduled execution date approached the execution team tried to insert the needle in four places. After 30 minutes of failing to successfully insert the needle the witnesses were told to leave the death chamber. The execution was officially called off.

Doyle Lee Hamm

Hamm, death row inmate in Alabama of the age of 60 years old, is scheduled for execution on February 22, 2018. Doyle is currently suffering from the terminal illness of lymphatic cancer, and undergoing radiation treatment to prevent the progression of the cancer. However, the medical treatment has left Hamm without accessible peripheral veins that are required during lethal injection. Doyle’s attorney of 28 years, Professor Bernard Harcourt of Columbia Law School,  claims that by using the common method of lethal injection, Doyle will suffer an “agonizing, bloody, and painful death.” To support his argument Harcourt brought anesthesiologist, Dr. March Heath, to testify about Hamm’s medical conditions. Heath explained that there is a high probability that intravenous lethal injection could cause paralysis and suffocation leading to “an agonizing death.” In the last month, with the approaching execution Harcourt proceeds to challenge the court to rule a stay of execution. Another group of advocates, including Governor Bill Richardson and the International Commission against the Death Penalty (ICDP), issued a letter addressing Alabama Governor Kay Ivey expressing concern about the approaching execution with regard to Doyle’s “serious medical conditions.” The ICDP calls on Governor Ivey to halt Hamas execution and rule life without parole, for Hamm to serve the rest of his life in prison. Moreover, United Nations human rights experts have called the US Government to halt the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, due to concern that lethal injection can amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, and possibly “torture.” The intersection between terminal illness and execution is a pertinent issue today, here is what you can do:

These four inmates demonstrate the variation in cases of terminal illness on death row. With the aging death row population courts will be posed with ethical questions surrounding what constitutes “too sick” for execution. Medical practitioners will likely become consultants to such cases, on the frontline of preventing the executions of terminally ill inmates.

The NCADP opposes the upcoming execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, and any execution of a terminally ill inmate. Join our movement, sign this petition to persuade Governor Kay Ivey to grant clemency to Doyle Lee Hamm.

— Jacqueline Lantsman

Tags: #HaltAllExecutions, #lethal injection

Join the community to end the death penalty. Get email updates.