Doyle Lee Hamm died Sunday, on death row in Alabama. But he might be said to have “cheated the executioner,” because he died of natural causes, seven years after he had been diagnosed with lymphatic and cranial cancer

Hamm was found in 2014 to have a large malignant tumor behind his left eye. They determined that he had B-cell lymphoma. There were also abnormal lymph nodes in his lungs, chest, and abdomen.  

The warden of Holman Prison called Doyle Lee Hamm’s brother on Sunday morning to inform him that his brother had passed away. Doyle Lee Hamm’s long-time attorney, Bernard Harcourt, said: “Doyle will be remembered for his generous and forgiving spirit and his ability to always stay positive even in the face of the most dire adversities. He will be missed by his friends and family.”

In America’s long and continuing debate over the death penalty, Doyle Lee Hamm’s case holds a special position. He raised the question: is it cruel and unusual in the constitutional sense for the state to seek to hasten a dying man’s death by lethal injection?

The state of Alabama tried to do just that, after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stop his planned execution in February 2018.

That execution attempt was botched, in a manner that Harcourt described as torture.

When Doyle Lee Hamm was strapped to the gurney at the scheduled time, the IV team “simultaneously worked on both legs at the same time, probing his flesh and inserting needles.”

In the process, Harcourt continued, they “almost certainly punctured Doyle’s bladder, because he was urinating blood for the next day. They may have hit his femoral artery as well, because suddenly there was a lot of blood gushing out. There were multiple puncture wounds on the ankles, calf, and right groin area, around a dozen.”

The intense pain meant that Hamm was praying that the execution would quickly succeed. When the executioners gave up and took him off the gurney, he collapsed.

After his client had survived that effort, Harcourt wanted to examine the execution chamber and read the notes of the prison workers. A judge turned down that demand, although the judge did order the Department of Corrections to preserve the notes and any other material from the aborted execution, including the clothing Hamm was wearing at the time.

That litigation was eventually settled with an agreement that correction officials would make no further effort to execute Doyle Lee Hamm, although Hamm was to remain on death row for the remainder of his life.

Hamm was on death row because he was convicted of the murder of hotel clerk Patrick Cunningham, in Cullman, Alabama.

Hamm was not the first prisoner to survive an execution effort because of bad veins. In September 2009, the state of Ohio had called off the execution of Romell Brown, likewise because of a failure to find an access point for the poison.

The odd parallel continued: Rommell Brown recently died of natural causes: in his case of Covid-19.

Convicted of the January 24, 1987 murder of hotel night clerk Patrick Cunningham in Cullman. Money ($350) motel’s cash register, and another $60 from Cunningham’s wallet.

The day after the murder, Doyle Lee Hamm was arrested in Cullman and charged with capital murder.

He was convicted and sentenced to death in a trial later that year. He appealed the sentence on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Andrew Cohen, writing for the Brennan Center for Justice, has said that when he first read the trial transcript he was “astounded by the cavalier nature of the proceedings that had led to Hamm’s conviction. There are legitimate legal and factual questions in this case about the effectiveness of Hamm’s trial attorney, who put on a 19-minute mitigation case.”