Member of state lethal-injection team testifies about problematic 2005 execution
A member of the team that put convicted killer Brian D. Steckel to death in 2005 said in a deposition he did not care if the execution caused Steckel unnecessary suffering or pain.
The man, identified in court papers as "John Doe III," told attorneys Steckel "didn't appear to care about the pain and suffering of his victims."
Doe III, who had been retired for several years at the time of the execution and was no longer licensed to practice as a paramedic or EMT, was one of the people directly responsible for setting up intravenous tubes to deliver the three-drug lethal injection to Steckel -- a setup that apparently failed.
Steckel's execution, the last before a federal judge put a hold on all executions by the state, did not seem to go correctly. It took 12 minutes for Steckel to die, with Steckel at one point looking up at the warden to say, "I didn't think it would take this long."
Steckel also convulsed and snorted just before he died, something experts said should not have happened.
The revelations came in a court filing this month in a federal lawsuit by attorneys for Delaware's death row inmates from the Federal Community Defender's office in Philadelphia. The class-action suit, which prompted a judge to put state executions on hold, challenges the state's use of lethal injection as unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
"The Department of Correction disputes the plaintiff's allegations and will address them at the appropriate time," spokesman John Painter said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court found in a Kentucky case that lethal injection is constitutionally permissible if carried out correctly. However, attorneys for the condemned in Delaware are arguing that the state's procedures have been inadequate and largely ignored, and newly adopted protocols are substantially different from those in Kentucky.
Attorneys for Delaware disagree and argue that Delaware's policies and procedures are even more stringent than those approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
District Judge Sue L. Robinson is scheduled to meet with attorneys today to set a date for a hearing on the issue. She also will decide which witnesses will be heard and if the proceeding will last hours or days.
While attorneys for death row inmates are alleging Delaware's process is broadly flawed, the details of the Steckel execution appear to provide some of the strongest, most troubling evidence.
Steckel was convicted and sentenced to death for the September 1994 rape and murder of 29-year-old Sandra Lee Long. After sexually and physically assaulting the woman with a screwdriver and leaving her unconscious, Steckel set fire to the apartment as he left, trapping her inside, where she died.
He later bragged about the murder and, after his arrest, sent a copy of the victim's autopsy to her mother with a handwritten note, "Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy. Read it and weep."
Steckel's appeals ran out in 2005 and the 36-year-old father of one was executed early on Nov. 4, 2005.
Lethal injection executions are usually brief, lasting a few minutes. They begin with a short statement by the condemned followed by the administration of the drugs. The prisoner then appears to fall asleep and dies.
Steckel's execution, however, took nearly 12 minutes and twice he appeared to have completed his statement and braced himself. But it was not until after his third "last words" that the drugs appeared to take hold.
At that point, he did not simply pass out but physically shook and emitted a loud snort.
According to court papers, the primary IV tube to Steckel failed and executioners switched to a backup. But apparently the execution team neglected to re-administer the anesthetic in the three-drug sequence.
The three drugs include an anesthetic to put the condemned to sleep, followed by a paralyzing agent and then a drug that causes a heart attack.
According to attorneys for Delaware's death row inmates, "as far as records indicate, Mr. Steckel was administered a paralytic drug and then an extremely painful heart-stopping drug without having adequate anesthesia, in violation of the Eighth Amendment."
Department of Correction officials have maintained that nothing went wrong and that Steckel was simply given extra time to speak to his family.
Recently, they acknowledged that the primary IV line failed and the backup had to be used, but said that was a situation they were prepared for, so they still maintain nothing went wrong.
According to court papers, no follow-up investigation was ever conducted.
The irregularities with the Steckel execution were in addition to a number of other problems discovered by attorneys for the plaintiffs which paint a picture of a near-chaotic, and at the very least, unprofessional execution process in Delaware.
"In this case, depositions of execution team members reveal rampant confusion and errors among the members of the execution and IV teams, and practices departing from the written protocol, ranging from erroneous dosages being administered to a lack of required training," wrote attorney Michael Wiseman for the plaintiffs.
In the past, there were virtually no qualifications for execution team members, they received little or no training, and in many cases they were unaware of what the procedure was supposed to be, according to court papers.
"There was no formal selection process, and past wardens picked members based on relationships with other members of the team, or DOC personnel, or because team members had performed past executions," wrote attorneys.
In depositions, those involved in past executions were confused or unaware of who was in charge. Some thought it was the doctor, who said he was only there to declare death and not advise on procedures. Others, like the doctor, thought it was the warden, who assumed the doctor was the authority.
And, according to court papers, the "medicine room" where team members mixed the chemicals to be used in the execution was kept almost completely dark -- to maintain anonymity of the participants -- raising questions about the accuracy of the mixing procedure.
In at least five executions, including Steckel's, the wrong dose of the final drug was administered. In all five cases, more was used than was called for in the protocol. In four other cases, it is not known how much was used because the amount was not recorded as required.