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DEAD MAN TALKING

Survivor of Ohio's latest botched execution reveals breathtaking incompetence

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Romell Broom achieved a macabre notoriety this past month when he became the first man to survive his date with the needle. Not just in Ohio, but anywhere.

The convicted rapist and murderer endured more than two hours of poking and stabbing before his date with death was called off indefinitely. His executioners could not find a vein to plant intravenous shunts, and they prodded him with needles at least 18 times to no avail, says Tim Sweeney, his lawyer. 

The eyes of the world are on Ohio now, and many are questioning our death-penalty apparatus.

It was the first time an execution was called off while in progress, but it wasn't the first time our executioners unintentionally prolonged their work. In 2006, inmate Joseph Clark uttered "It don't work" as his handlers bungled an IV attachment and delayed his doom for more than an hour. In 2007, techs took close to two hours to find a vein and put down obese inmate Christopher Newton; at one point, they granted Newton a restroom break.

Broom lived to tell his tale in an affidavit filed in Columbus federal court days after surviving the death chamber. He described his time on a prep table as two technicians (he called them "nurses") struggled to find veins in his arms. Blood gushed as they pricked him. At one point, "The female nurse left the room," writes Broom. "The correction officer asked her if she was OK. She responded 'no' and walked out.

"I tried to assist them by helping to tie my own arm," recounts Broom. Witnesses said Broom turned on his side and flexed his arms to further assist. A third tech came into the room, and the workers repeatedly stabbed Broom in the arms, right ankle, lower right leg and right hand.  Broom said he bled, bruised and felt a needle hit his ankle bone. The executioners' futile attempts left scores of puncture marks.

When Ohio prison director Terry Collins came into the room to tell Broom that the execution would be postponed, "Collins indicated that he appreciated my cooperation and noted my attempts to help the team."

Complications have confounded the Ohio execution team in one out of every 11 lethal injections. Prison officials have defended their employees, a group of at least a dozen men and women whose anonymity remains protected by court order.

In the face of international scrutiny, prison officials continue to defend Ohio's death team. "We believe they do a job most people couldn't do," says Julie Walburn, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. "We believe they do it professionally and appropriately."

Walburn says the state is not preparing a formal report in response to the Broom episode.

All states that practice capital punishment maintain strict privacy policies, with California ranking as the most open, says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. This shroud poses a fundamental problem for states looking to defend their actions when questions arise. "With the fact that these mistakes happen, the explanation of 'Trust me, we're doing this right,' loses credibility," says Dieter.  "There needs to be access, observation, to see what's claimed is what really happens. 

"This is about keeping control of public perception, that lethal injection is antiseptic, a pain-free method," he continues. "It could be said that a firing squad or the guillotine are quicker and painless, but people don't want to go there."

Critics of the death penalty say a lack of public review fosters secrecy and denies accountability. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a public-records request in an attempt to learn more about execution preparations, says Carrie Davis, the organization's staff counsel. There's no way to judge execution teams' credentials or work history, and because the state does not request autopsies of the dead inmates, there's no way to determine if the drugs were administered correctly.

"These people are carrying out a state-sanctioned killing in our name," says Davis. "These are our tax dollars at work. This is not a private enterprise. They are state employees."

What little we know about execution team members emerged in March in a federal lawsuit by Ohio death-row inmates challenging lethal injection. Ohio's former executioner (he retired in July, according to the Associated Press) testified while hidden behind a shield. He rattled off a job history that included hospital aide, paramedic and a manager for inmate vocational programs. Neither he nor his understudy — also an EMT —received training on the use or exact effects of the drugs in relation to certain dosages, according to court records.  Instead, through his mirrored window, the 53-year-old career prison worker watched dying inmates "for vital-sign changes, watching for movement changes, just watching the person as I would if it was a person in my care."

Dr. Jonathan Groner takes issue with what he deems unqualified personnel using the instruments of his vocation — IVs, syringes and drugs — to kill. Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at the Ohio State College of Medicine and a staunch death-penalty abolitionist, says Ohio is caught in a "Hippocratic paradox." Those most qualified to help the state in executions — doctors, nurses, practicing EMTs — are forbidden from taking part in executions by codes of ethics and state boards. (Recently, the Ohio board that governs EMTs ruled that the state's executioners, despite their EMT certification, were outside the board's jurisdiction and thus free from sanction because they are not representing themselves as EMTs during the executions. At least two emergency medical technicians are part of a squad largely comprising prison guards, according to the Associated Press.)

Trained medical professionals are more likely to handle unexpected situations with success than the people the state uses in executions, says Groner. "People who put in IVs everyday — such as city paramedics, nurses in a hospital — they don't have these [technical] problems. For a person who does it for a living, it's like driving a car." In the pressure cooker that is the state death chamber, he adds, "you match the most difficult cases with the least experienced" personnel. 

Problems with lethal injection forced Florida governor Jeb Bush to temporarily delay capital punishment in 2006 after an autopsy showed that the chemicals had infiltrated Angel Diaz' muscle tissue instead of his bloodstream. New Jersey temporarily halted the death penalty as it revised its execution procedures, but abolished the practice in 2007 after a greater debate on the capital punishment. Maryland, California and North Carolina have frozen their systems as they debate policy.

Ohio is the only state that has a law that requires a quick and painless execution, and Broom's lawyer, Tim Sweeney, argues that the state has not fulfilled that requirement.

"I think there are serious questions of whether the state is using the right people to carry out a relatively complex procedure," says Sweeney. "If the drug isn't administered properly, the inmate will assuredly be tortured to death."

U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost plans to hear Broom's arguments in Columbus on November 30 — well after the state's next execution, scheduled for October 8. Newspaper editorials have called for a halt. Ohio secretary of state and U.S. Senate candidate Jennifer Brunner recently became the highest-ranking state official to call for a moratorium. 

Governor Ted Strickland's office has received more than 1,100 messages about the death penalty," says his spokesperson Amanda Wurst. She said Strickland cannot legally issue a blanket moratorium, and he has yet to issue a clemency ruling for Lawrence Reynolds, the next inmate in line for execution.

Broom's victim was a 14-year-old East Cleveland girl named Tryna Middleton. As she walked home from a football game, Broom kidnapped her at knifepoint, raped her and fatally stabbed her seven times. I visited her parents on Friday with the hopes of getting their take on this swirling debate.

Bessye Middleton answered the door, but deferred to her husband, a tall, burly man who came out onto his porch to speak with me. David Middleton accepted my handshake and listened coolly, but he did not want to be interviewed. He said that he's tired of exploitative reporters on his front yard and tired of the whirlwind events that have swept his family into the national spotlight.

When I told him that I had witnessed an execution in 2004, he perked with curiosity, and we chatted a bit more. I shared with him my haunting recollection of Lewis Williams' death. I asked him if the execution room was as dark as I remembered it. "Like a horror movie," he said. 

Then he noted that his daughter was never coming back. It was difficult to look him in the eye when he said this. He wants to be left alone, he said. This isn't a horror movie for him; this is a tragedy he never asked for. I wished him the best and left. "I'm through with this," he said as I walked away. "Whatever happens, happens."

SANITIZED FOR OUR PROTECTON

The vivid witness accounts of Romell Broom’s failed execution two weeks ago reminded me of the surreal experience of watching the lethal injection of Ohio death-row inmate Lewis Williams in 2004.

Williams, of Cleveland, refused to walk into the execution chamber, so the guards carried him in. He begged for his life as they strapped him onto a metal gurney. 

Time crawled, but my heart and pen raced. The dim glow of subdued lights augmented the spectacle. Williams lay before us on the deathbed. To our left, a partition and a mirrored window hid the faceless, nameless executioner who prepared the fatal dose. From that wall emerged the intravenous tubes that channeled drugs into William’s arms. After Williams gasped his last breath — a tear stain along his left cheek — someone drew a curtain so an unseen official could proclaim Lewis dead. Despite Williams’ struggles and pleas, the entire procedure lasted just 30 minutes.

For days I pondered what I’d seen, how the execution resembled a piece of macabre theater; how state law dating back to 1885 ended public showcases and ensured that only a few Ohioans saw the executions with their own eyes; and especially how the state forbade its citizens from knowing who stood behind the mirrored window. 

My detailed account of Williams’ demise for the newspaper I was working for made me the target of readers who labeled me a bleeding heart and cursed me for having sympathy for killers. Some accused me of distortion. My lasting impression was that Ohioans did not really want to see and deal with the grisly fruit of our death penalty law, that we did not want to consider the questions surrounding public accountability and that we just don’t care. So for me, like most others, executions returned to their “proper” place: an occasional news article with an unwanted protagonist and the predictable sound bite of justice served.

We have executed 23 men since I saw Lewis Williams die. Broom would have been the 33rd man killed since the state revved up its death machine in 1999. But then Ohio and Broom made history, and not only did my questions resurface, but so did the questions of many others who want to know what exactly is going on.  If we can’t get this right, should we be doing it at all?

dguevara@clevescene.com

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