Death penalty expert: 7 percent of all executions by lethal injections are botched

Death penalty expert Robert Dunham says the mishandling of lethal injections for death-row inmates is more common than may be believed.

"The estimates are about 7 percent of all the executions by lethal injections are botched,” Dunham told Hill.TV co-hosts Krystal Ball and Buck Sexton on “Rising.”

Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said he blames the statistic on a majority of lethal injections being performed by non-medical personnel, citing a 2014 incident involving an Oklahoma inmate who had been sentenced to death.

Dunham called the execution of Clayton Lockett a "failure" after the execution team couldn't find a vein. Lockett died 43 minutes after the first execution drug was administered, but the prison warden, at the time, called the scene a "bloody mess," according to court documents.

In another case, an Alabama death row inmate’s execution was abandoned after prison officials failed to find a viable vein and his death warrant expired.

The inmate, Doyle Lee Hamm, said the incident left him “botched and bloody,” according to medical reports. Hamm later reached a settlement with the state, which will not pursue a second execution attempt.

But Dunham said the biggest problem lies in the type of of drugs being used in lethal injections.

“As the drugs that states wanted to use have become unavailable, they’ve shifted to drugs like midazolam and midazolam is a sedative," Dunham said. "It’s a very good medicine but it doesn’t keep the person unconscious if they are exposed to some kind of painful stimulant."

Virtually every major pharmaceutical company has adopted a distribution policy that says their medicines cannot be sold for off-label purposes, including for the use of executing death-row inmates.

As a result, states like Nebraska have struggled to get drugs needed for lethal injections and increasingly have been turning to a new cocktail of drugs. 

Nebraska prison officials are set to perform the first execution in the state in more than 20 years using an untried mixture of drugs, including iazepam, fentanyl and cisatracurium.

— Tess Bonn