Black death row inmates suffer more botched lethal injections than white ones: Report

A new report says that Black inmates sentenced to death by lethal injection suffered a botched procedure at higher rates than white prisoners. 

In the analysis released this month, researchers at the anti-death penalty group Reprieve found that Black people had a 220 percent greater chance of suffering a botched lethal injection execution than white people, regardless of whether a one-drug or a three-drug protocol was used. 

“It is well-established that the death penalty is infected with racial bias at every stage of the process,” the report states. “This report reveals that the racial disparities in capital punishment extend all the way into the execution chamber.”

In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty in three cases was unconstitutional, and as a result halted executions until clarifying the ruling in 1976. Since then, at least 1,582 individuals have been executed. 

Lethal injection was first introduced as a legal execution method in Oklahoma in 1977. Proponents argued it was a painless process that would take around five minutes and the person would die less than two minutes after the final injection.

But Reprieve’s study found that more than a third of botched lethal injection executions lasted more than 45 minutes and over a quarter lasted for more than an hour. In 2022, a Black man in Alabama suffered the longest botched execution, more than three hours. 

“Proponents of lethal injection have long declared it to be quick, peaceful, and painless,” the report reads. “This new analysis of botched lethal injection executions in the modern era comprehensively debunks this claim, finding botched lethal injection executions to be both prolonged and painful. Many botched executions were found to have spanned hours, with people choking, vomiting and bleeding in the execution chamber.”

Reprieve’s report found that out of 465 executions of Black inmates, 37 — or about eight percent — were botched, compared to only 28 out of 780 executions of white inmates, or about 4 percent. 

The report highlights different case studies, including the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett, a 38-year-old Black man in Oklahoma. 

In Lockett’s case, the execution team worked for 51 minutes to insert IV lines, puncturing Lockett 16 times in his upper chest and jugular region, his upper arm, elbow pit, wrist, groin and foot.

Eventually, Lockett was injected with an untested drug cocktail of unknown origin. He started “breathing heavily, writhing, clenching his teeth and straining to lift his head off the pillow,” and the execution team found that Lockett’s vein had “exploded” or “collapsed.” As a result, the drugs were not getting into Lockett’s system and were instead bubbling under his skin, creating significant swelling.

Lockett died of a heart attack 43 minutes after the start of his execution. The paramedic who tried to establish IV access later claimed the failure was because “Black people have smaller veins,” though there is no scientific evidence to substantiate such a claim.

Jamila Hodge, a former federal prosecutor and now the Executive Director of Equal Justice USA, said the Reprieve’s findings are shocking but also unsurprising. 

“Racial oppression relies on our willingness to dehumanize other people,” Hodge said in a statement. “And that same devaluing of human life is what makes painful, torturous executions something our nation has come to accept.”

This is not the first time the death penalty has come under scrutiny for racial disparities. 

In 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative found that though Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than 41 percent of death row inmates. 

In 2020, the Death Penalty Information Center found that killers of Black people are less likely to face the death penalty than people who kill white people. Since 1977, 295 Black defendants have been executed for killing a white victim, but only 21 white defendants were executed for killing a Black victim.

Despite advocates’ attempts to abolish the practice, the death penalty remains legal in 21 states. 

Reprieve’s latest report found that racial disparities in botched executions varied by state. 

In Arkansas, 75 percent of botched executions were of Black people, despite executions of Black people accounting for just 33 percent of all executions. In the state of Georgia, 86 percent of botched executions were of Black people, though executions of Black people made up only 30 percent of all executions. And in Oklahoma, 83 percent of botched executions were of Black people. There, Black people made up just 30 percent of all executions.

The report attributes botched executions to a variety of factors, including secrecy, illicit drug procurement, poor quality drugs and haste. 

“In their efforts to carry out executions at any cost, state officials have evaded oversight at every stage of the execution process and have engaged in illegal and underhanded practices which have contributed to botched executions,” the report states. 

Reprieve is now calling for an immediate moratorium on all lethal injection executions at both the state and federal levels. The study also urges officials to be more transparent about the process, including recording the start time of an execution as the moment when officials begin to prepare the person for the lethal injection. 

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