A Year of Botched Executions

Elizabeth Bruenig reflects on writing about—and witnessing—capital punishment in America.

Switches and lights
Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty

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This year, the state of Alabama botched three consecutive executions by lethal injection: One man died after three hours of apparent torture, while two others lived. “The state’s incompetence,” Elizabeth Bruenig wrote last month, is “a civil-rights crisis.” I spoke with Liz about what’s going on in Alabama, her reporting on capital punishment, and what she’s learned from witnessing state-sanctioned deaths in person.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Bearing Witness

Isabel Fattal: What do we know and what don’t we know about Alabama’s series of botched executions?

Elizabeth Bruenig: Last week, the governor of Alabama sent an open letter to the Supreme Court of Alabama and its chief justice asking, essentially, for more time to conduct executions.

Looking at the last three men that they have attempted executions on, only the first of them was successful—Joe Nathan James, on July 28. He was executed after many attempts [to insert an IV catheter] all over his body—hands, arms, feet—including what appears to have been a failed cutdown procedure, where Alabama cut into his arm looking for a vein. Next came Alan Miller and Kenny Smith; again, there were attempts [to insert a needle] all over each man’s body, and both execution attempts ended in failure.

The governor is saying there’s just not enough time to complete the process. But if you look at the bodies of the men who’ve been subjected to these procedures, the executioners have had plenty of time to put needles all over these men. If they were given more time, why do we think they would be successful?

Isabel: How much of the execution process are reporters or other witnesses allowed to see?

Liz: When you go to witness an execution, here’s what’s happening to you. You will walk through a metal detector. They’ll take jewelry; sometimes they’ll search you. I’ve had to go into a room, unbutton my shirt, flip my bra inside out. They pat you down and search you quite seriously.

Then they’ll put you on a van to the execution chamber, which is typically a stand-alone structure set somewhat apart from the remainder of the prison. You’ll be sat down in the witness chamber. When the curtain is drawn aside, what you will see is a man already strapped to a gurney with IV lines set. The needles will already be in his veins. They do not draw the curtain aside until they have access to two veins. You don’t see any of what happens while they’re trying to find veins.

Isabel: Right. So that’s how officers can spend hours searching for veins when no one’s watching.

Liz: And the reason you don’t see any of that happening—even though I think a normal person would say, “Of course that’s part of the execution”—is to shield the identities of the executioners. Their identities are totally protected from public scrutiny, despite the fact that nobody else in this process gets their identity protected.

Isabel: The state of Alabama has placed a moratorium on executions, pending a review of the process. What do you expect might happen as a result of this review?

Liz: To take a realistic assessment of the situation, the Alabama Department of Corrections has been charged with investigating itself. And one part of me says, if they were capable of diagnosing and actually fixing their problems, they would have done it. Another part of me says, it’s quite plausible that the Alabama Department of Corrections has no real interest or motivation to carry out executions. They probably have other projects, like prison construction and the recruitment and training of corrections officers, that they would rather be doing.

In the worst-case scenario, it’s possible that they are in a rush to resume executions and that the way that they want to do it is with nitrogen hypoxia, and they’re working on a gas-execution protocol that would be as heinous as the last. I hope that’s not their plan.

Isabel: What have you learned from spending time with the families of death-row inmates?

Liz: Twice, I was a personal witness. Instead of being corralled with the media people who were witnessing, I was with the families of the two men who were to be executed.

Executions are performed by the state with a lot of dedication to the victims’ families. This is part of the pageantry of an execution, if you will—that it’s sort of a dedicated event, and it’s dedicated to the victim’s family. It’s supposed to give them closure or justice or peace or a sense of safety—any number of things. But there is absolutely no space for the family of the person being executed. What has come across to me most clearly is that the capital-punishment regime in the United States presumes that part of the punishment of the offender is the punishment of their family.

I don’t think people think about the fact that those guys have families. I know it’s inconvenient, because they’re not the person you sympathize with, but the families of the prisoners are completely and totally innocent.

Isabel: Where are you looking next as you follow this story?

Liz: For Alabama, I’m very concerned about this question of a gas chamber. If lethal-gas execution is what they’re going to do, then I will witness, and I will be there.

But my remit is actually pretty wide. My beat is violence in America. The death penalty is a piece of that, but I have broad interests. I’m interested in domestic violence and in suicide. I’m also interested in cookies. (Laughs.) I have a lot of other interests too.

I connect with people who are going through shit very well. I like to find people who are going through it and see what I can do for them.


Today’s News

  1. A gunman killed at least three people and wounded three others in central Paris. The suspect targeted a Kurdish community center, a hair salon, and a restaurant in what officials believe was a racist spree.
  2. The House passed a $1.7 trillion spending bill, to be signed into law by President Joe Biden.
  3. More than 1.5 million people across America are without power as a result of severe winter storms.


Explore all of our newsletters here.

Evening Read

A glass frog, viewed from its underside, while awake and active (left) or asleep (right).
The Atlantic; Jesse Delia / American Museum of Natural History

How Glass Frogs Weave the World’s Best Invisibility Cloak

By Katherine J. Wu

Glass frogs do not live a life of modesty. With their semitransparent skin—green on the back, clear on the belly—the tree-dwelling, gummy-bear-size amphibians, which are native to the tropics of Central and South America, have little choice but to put their organs on display. Gaze up at certain species from below, and you’ll be treated to an aquarium of innards: a beating heart, a matrix of bones, the shimmering silhouette of the gut.

The frog’s see-through stomach is an ingenious ruse. It turns the animal’s underside into a living, light-transmitting window, camouflaging the creature from skyward-gazing birds and snakes. There’s just one problem with the frog’s otherwise convincingly ghostly garb: the latticework of bright-red blood vessels laced throughout its tissues. It’s an especially big issue in the daytime, when the frogs are asleep amid the leaves. As sunlight filters through the trees, casting shadows off whatever it hits below, the frogs’ own blood threatens to betray them.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A scene from Bablyon
Scott Garfield / Paramount

Read. Pick up one of the 10 books that made us think the most this year, including Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Linda Villarosa’s Under the Skin.

Looking to dive into a classic? Here are six that live up to their reputation.

Watch. In theaters, Babylon is an extravaganza of both misery and movie magic. And Avatar: The Way of Water puts most modern blockbusters to shame.

On TV, check out one of our critics’ 15 best shows of the year.

Listen. Musically speaking, this year was a party. Let some of our best albums of the year be your weekend soundtrack.

And, of course, it’s time for Christmas music—if you can decide what to listen to.

Play our daily crossword.


Because Liz mentioned some of her more cheerful interests, I asked her to elaborate on one thing that’s giving her joy these days. “I’m about to get my nails done again,” she told me. “Right now they’re just glitter-tipped, with presents on the thumbs. But on December 30, I’m getting them bright red with the Coke Zero logo. Coke Zero brings me a huge amount of joy.” Liz also told me she’s a proud “CLA”—Christmas-loving adult—so she’s been gearing up for this weekend for quite a while.

Wishing a happy holiday to those who celebrate,

— Isabel