It must have been a grim scene on Tuesday night inside of Ohio’s state prison at Lucasville. Romell Broom lay strapped to a gurney with a team of medical technicians and correction officials hovering about him. But rather than receiving emergency medical treatment, Romell was waiting to die.
Back in 1984, Broom had been convicted of abducting a fourteen-year-old child as she walked home from a football game in Cleveland, raping her and killing her. No credible opposition to the evidence presented against him was forthcoming, and the court determined that Romell should no longer be sharing above ground real estate with the rest of us. Following the usual, nearly endless appeal cycle, Broom found himself ready to meet his maker.
But something went far off the beam on this occasion. After two hours of probing, poking, and prodding, the technicians were unable to find a suitable vein where they could administer the lethal injection. Whether this was the result of chronic intravenous drug abuse or some congenital circulatory problem makes little difference. The end result was that the execution attempt failed and Broom walked out of the chamber under his own power, still breathing the same oxygen as the rest of us.
Botched executions are nothing new in the annals of history, ranging from the curious and tragic to the downright arcane. In 1541 King Henry VIII of England ordered the beheading of Margaret Pole. One would think that the 68-year-old countess of Salisbury wouldn’t present much of a challenge, but the inexperienced ax man assigned to the job missed her neck entirely and wound up chasing her about the platform in a grotesque foreshadowing of a Benny Hill skit, slashing her a dozen times before she finally expired.
Closer to home, “Plum” Loomis, of New York’s colorful and storied Loomis Gang, was hung three times in the late 1800s over the course of his career according to newspaper reports and local legend. No failure of the court system should be blamed in his case, however, as his brothers kept showing up and cut him down before the sentence could be fully carried out. (Proper records are tough to come by, as the Loomis brothers burned down the courthouse in Watertown prior to the trial of another sibling, but Plum died in his sleep at home well into his sixties.)
Wenseslao Moguel may have been one of the strangest of all. After being captured in 1915 while fighting in the Mexican revolution, Moguel was sentenced to be executed by firing squad. The order was carried out, with Wenselao being shot nine times, the last coming in the form of a close range shot to the head by the officer in charge. Amazingly, he not only survived, but his record indicates that he “escaped” from custody. Some years later he showed up in a photo talking to representatives of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
Back to the case at hand, Governor Ted Strickland ordered a one week delay while the technical problems were sorted out, but Broom’s lawyers are now claiming that the execution can no longer go forward. They seem to be making two separate pitches on this appeal, with the first being the old jailhouse lawyer myth that the state can not attempt to execute someone twice for the same crime. They also claim that the botched process would now fall under the umbrella of cruel and unusual punishment.
Both lines of argument are interesting but have already failed to sway the Supreme Court. The last time such a case was heard was in 1945 when Willie Francis failed to expire in the electric chair due to technical issues and incompetence on the part of the prison staff. In the court’s collective judgment, nothing prevented the state from giving Willie a proper sendoff approximately one year later.
I have no doubt that much of the discussion which is sure to surround Romell Broom’s case will boil down to the never-ending debate over the death penalty. It’s a painful topic for many people, but much of it boils down to characteristics of human society and their dealings with criminals which date back to the dawn of man’s efforts to rise above the beasts. This thin veneer of civilization, as Borroughs liked to call it, requires constant attention and repair, along with the consent of a significant majority.
Mr. Broom needs to keep his date with destiny next week. Homo sapiens have a violent, war-like streak buried deep down in the hind brain, and there will always be a small percentage of the herd falling at the trailing edge of the bell curve which can not overcome those instincts. Civilized societies have long held the right to act in an uncivil manner toward those who would unleash mayhem which threatens the social structure. We may not like it, but sometimes it’s the only thing separating the denizens of the city from the barbarians outside the gates.