U.N. Human Rights Experts Call on U.S. to Halt Execution of Doyle Lee Hamm

U.N. Special Rapporteurs warn that Alabama’s plans to execute inmate who suffers from cancer and whose veins are compromised is “cruel and inhumane punishment.”

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New York, Feb. 19, 2018—Experts with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights are calling on the United States government to halt the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, the Alabama death-row inmate represented pro bono by Columbia Law School Professor Bernard E. Harcourt. Hamm suffers from lymphatic cancer and carcinoma and is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Feb. 22, 2018.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and Nils Melzer, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, expressed concerns that the use of a lethal injection could amount to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment—and possibly torture.

Doyle Lee Hamm in 1981
Doyle Lee Hamm in 1981
“We are seriously concerned that attempts to insert needles into Mr. Hamm’s veins to carry out the lethal injection would inflict pain and suffering that may amount to torture,” they said in its Feb. 16 letter.

Their concerns are based on testimony by Mark Heath, M.D., an anesthesiologist and professor of medicine at Columbia University who assessed Hamm’s medical condition in September. Earlier this month, Heath explained to Federal district judge Karon O. Bowdre, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, that due to Hamm’s compromised veins, there was a high probability that intravenous lethal injection could cause Hamm to become paralyzed and consciously suffocate, leading to “an agonizing death.” 

Callamard and Melzer said that imposing the death penalty in a manner that constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment would render the execution arbitrary in nature and thus be in violation of the fundamental right to life. “We urge the authorities to halt his execution, annul his death sentence, and hold a re-trial that complies with international standards, as we have received information indicating that his original trial did not fully respect the most stringent due process and fair trial guarantees.”

Harcourt has represented Hamm since 1990 and on numerous occasions has argued a constitutional claim of “cruel and unusual punishment” before the state of Alabama. "Doyle Hamm's lymphatic cancer and compromised veins raise precisely the type of human rights violations that the U.N. Rapporteurs deal with every day around the world: arbitrary executions, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. It is shocking, but not surprising, that the U.N. would have to intervene in Alabama."  

Harcourt has for years been assisted by a team of Columbia Law students, including most recently, Nika Cohen and Phoebe Wolfe, two third-year law student who have been present at the recent hearings, and Isadora Ruyter-Harcourt, a recent graduate of Barnard College.

Background on the case can be found here. 

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Published on February 19, 2018