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Doyle Hamm, Who Survived a Bungled Execution, Dies in Prison at 64


Doyle Hamm, a convicted murderer who in 2018 became the fourth death row inmate in America to survive a botched execution by lethal injection, died on Sunday in the William C. Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, in southern Alabama. He was 64.

The cause was complications of the lymphoma and cranial cancer for which he had been treated since 2014, said his pro bono lawyer, Bernard E. Harcourt, a Columbia University professor of law and political science.

Mr. Hamm was terminally ill when the death sentence was scheduled to be carried out, at 9 p.m. on Feb. 22, 2018. Doctors had warned that his veins were inaccessible because of his treatment for cancer and hepatitis C as well as for his intravenous drug use. As a result, an execution team struggled for nearly three hours, puncturing him at least 11 times in his legs, ankles and groin and apparently injuring several organs before giving up at 11:27 p.m. because the legal death warrant expired at midnight.

“I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem,” Jeff Dunn, the Alabama Corrections Commissioner, said in a statement that astounded reporters during a news conference at the time.

Correctional officials had been told by a judge that Mr. Hamm’s upper limbs were off limits because his veins were so compromised. Mr. Hamm himself had suggested that the lethal drugs be administered orally. But that would not have been allowed under the state’s execution protocol.

Mr. Harcourt filed a civil rights suit describing the bungled attempt as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment and warning that any further attempt by the state would be challenged as subjecting Mr. Hamm to double jeopardy.

“This was a bit of butchery that can only be described as torture,” Mr. Harcourt told Roger Cohen, then an opinion columnist for Apany News, shortly afterward. Mr. Cohen wrote two columns assailing the execution attempt, one under the headline “Death Penalty Madness in Alabama.”

This week, Mr. Harcourt told Mr. Cohen by email that “there’s no doubt” that the attention he gave the case “forced the hand of the Alabama attorney general and made them enter into an agreement with me that they would not seek another execution date.”

Details of that agreement, on March 26, 2018, were kept confidential, but amounted to a sentence of life imprisonment.

Mr. Hamm had been on death row since 1987, when he confessed to participating in the robbery of the Anderson Motel in Cullman, Ala., in which a night clerk, Patrick Cunningham, was fatally shot once in the temple with a .38 caliber pistol that Mr. Hamm had stolen in a robbery he committed in Mississippi earlier that day, Jan. 24 of that year.

The cash register was emptied of $350, and $60 more was taken from Mr. Cunningham’s wallet. Two witnesses were later charged as co-defendants but testified for the prosecution.

Mr. Harcourt helped stave off Mr. Hamm’s execution for three decades, starting in 1990, by working with Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer in Alabama who had begun an organization to defend indigent criminals in capital cases.

Pursuing appeals up to the United States Supreme Court, Mr. Harcourt argued that his client had received a woefully inadequate defense, that mitigating evidence about his background had never been introduced, and that a judge’s 89-page ruling against Mr. Hamm had been adopted word-for-word from a document submitted one business day before by the state attorney general.

Doyle Lee Hamm was born on Feb. 14, 1957, in Lancaster, Calif., the 10th of 12 children of Eula Mae Howell and Major Edward Hamm, a World War II veteran whose first name was not his Army rank but one given at birth. Doyle’s six older brothers served time in jail. So did his father, who worked intermittently as a carpenter and cotton picker. One of Doyle’s sisters quoted her father as saying, “If you don’t go out and steal, then you’re not a Hamm.”

Doyle Hamm married Cammie Crab in 1981; they divorced the next year, after the birth of their daughter, Maranda. His survivors include his daughter; a brother, Danny Wayne Hamm; and a grandniece, Dwan Powell.

Mr. Hamm had an I.Q. of 66 in the sixth grade, possibly a result in part of fetal alcohol syndrome. He flunked the first grade and dropped out of school in the eighth grade.

When he was 20, Mr. Hamm pleaded guilty to a robbery that had taken place in the parking lot of a bar and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment after his court-appointed lawyer was quoted in court documents as saying that he, the lawyer, had been “too busy and overworked to give this case the time and attention it needed”; the victim later recanted.

Lethal injection was first adopted by Oklahoma in 1977 because it was considered a more humane and cheaper method of capital punishment than electrocution or lethal gas, practices that were already permitted in several states. Mr. Hamm had been sentenced to death by electrocution, but Alabama’s electric chair, nicknamed Yellow Mama because of its color, was mothballed when the state conducted its first execution by lethal injection in 2002.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that as death row inmates age and confront more maladies, the likelihood will grow that executions by lethal injection will go wrong.

Mr. Harcourt said by email that his client “actually came closer to death, and survived, than anyone else who was subject to lethal injection.”

“Doyle Hamm’s case will stand as a tragic illustration of how a government’s uncritical and merciless pursuit of justice can turn a legal system into a form of human sacrifice,” Mr. Harcourt continued, “as Alabama prosecutors and its most august state and federal judges desperately sought to offer up a fragile 61-year-old man dying of cancer to snatch his life before nature — or God — could take its course.”


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