Death row killers who suffered the most excruciating botched executions

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If there's one thing the Americans have been consistent on, it's executions.

Since the 1970s more than 1,500 people have been put death in the USA – without even considering the thousands killed by the state before the 20th century.

But despite the frequency of the procedure, things don't always go to plan and not every execution is a smooth one.

Condemned prisoners have suffered horrific extended deaths due to malfunctioning equipment, medical incompetence and sometimes just sheer bad luck.

These six botched executions have made the history books for turning what was meant to be a quick death into an agonising ordeal.

Jimmy Lee Gray 'died banging his head against gas chamber wall'

Jimmy Lee Gray's horrific rape and murder of a three-year-old sent him to the gas chamber in 1983, becoming the first person executed in Mississippi since the state reinstated the death penalty.

One of the reporters watching wrote of how Gray began thrashing his head around as he breathed in the toxic fumes, striking his head on an iron bar behind his chair.

Officials cleared the observation room but not before everyone had the chance to see Gray was badly injuring himself.

According to reports, astounded reporters counted his moans.

This botched execution prompted Mississippi to make lethal injection the state's only method — although as the next ill-fated inmate will prove, that's hardly failsafe either.

Wesley Ira Purkey's 'excruciating' drowning sensation

  • Death row out of lethal injections so inmates must choose firing squad or electric chair

Sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a teenager, Wesley Ira Purkey suffered far more during his execution than the average lethal injection recipient.

The 68-year-old's autopsy reveals fluid quickly entered his lungs and trachea causing "a near-drowning" sensation during the procedure in July 2020.

Expert Dr Gail Van Norman said the flash flood-like filling of Purkey's lungs could only occur when a person was still alive and strapped to the injection table.

"It is a virtual medical certainty, that most, if not all, prisoners will experience excruciating suffering, including sensations of drowning and suffocation from pentobarbital," she told

Joseph Wood 'gasped for air for over an hour'

  • Death row killer's 'excruciating’ execution after making last meal 'mistake'

Just a few years earlier another killer suffered through a botched lethal injection that saw him "gasp and snort for more than an hour".

Joseph Wood was sentenced to death for killing his ex-girlfriend and her father in 1989 but wasn't executed until 2014.

A combination of midazolam and hydromorphone, which had been used only once previously, was injected into Wood's body 15 times although one dose should have been sufficient.

Reporters observed Wood gasping more than 600 times, like a "fish gulping for air".

While the execution should have taken 10 minutes, it dragged on for more than an hour, prompting his lawyers to file an emergency stay of execution.

"He has been gasping and snorting for more than an hour… he is still alive," they wrote to the Supreme Court.

A judge's denial came half an hour after Wood finally died.

William Williams and the too-long rope

Miner William Williams was the last person executed by the state of Minnesota in 1906 for the murders of a male friend (possibly his lover) and his mother.

After proclaiming his innocence from the gallows and calling the occasion an "illegal hanging", Williams was dropped through the trapdoor — but the rope around his neck proved too long.

The 28-year-old hit the ground, sustaining injuries but failing to die. Officials had to hold up his body by the rope for more than 14 minutes until he finally died of strangulation.

Flames shoot out of Pedro Medina's head

  • Death row inmates' bonkers last words – from 'I'd rather be fishing' to 'Potato'

Pedro Medina murdered a woman in Orlando, Florida in 1982 and was sent to the electric chair 15 years later.

But the gruesome device known as "Old Sparky" malfunctioned, causing flames to shoot out of the prisoner's head to the horror of observers including his pastor.

In 1999 another death row inmate petitioned the state to do away with the "cruel and unusual punishment", citing Medina's suffering as evidence.

Witnesses testified to a burning smell and flames emanating from the man's body after the electric current was turned on, as well as Medina seeming to move after the current was switched off.

However an autopsy found Medina hadn't suffered as much as he seemed to, as the first jolt of electricity had effectively destroyed his brain in a second.

A circuit court judge ruled that the execution's flaws were the result of "unintentional human error" rather than faults with the chair.

Romell Broom survives execution – then dies of Covid

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Sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 1984 murder of a teenage girl, Romell Broom is one of a handful of people to survive their own execution.

A 2009 attempt saw increasingly stressed officials try to find a vein for an IV line in Broom's arm. For two hours they persevered, jabbing him with a needle 18 times until he cried in pain.

Eventually the Governor of Ohio issued a one-week reprieve that stretched into more than a decade after Broom's lawyers argued the first execution attempt constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Over the next several years Amnesty International campaigned to spare Broom's life, a documentary was made about the botched execution and Broom even wrote a book about his experience.

In 2016 the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the state could try again but it was delayed over and over again by Broom's various appeals. A final date of June 17, 2020 was settled on — then the pandemic hit.

While waiting on death row Broom contracted Covid-19 and died, having managed to avoid execution entirely.

  • Death Row

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