A Condemned Killer Thought, ‘This Is My Day to Die.’ Then It Wasn’t.

A Condemned Killer Thought, ‘This Is My Day to Die.’ Then It Wasn’t.

Thomas Creech had been imprisoned in Idaho for nearly 50 years, convicted of five murders in three states and suspected of several more, when he was wheeled into an execution chamber in February.

For nearly an hour, medical workers at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution outside Boise struggled to insert an intravenous line that was needed to pump a deadly drug into his bloodstream. Starting with his arms, then his hands and finally his legs, they tried and failed to get a needle into a suitable vein. The proceedings were called off.

“The worst ones was when they got down to my ankles,” Mr. Creech said in his first interview since the bungled procedure. “I was thinking the whole time that this is really it. I’m dead. This is my day to die.”

The prisoner, 73, is the most recent survivor of a botched execution, part of a troubling trend at prisons across the United States as they face a challenging combination of untrained executioners, difficulty in securing lethal drugs and an aging death row population.

In the interview, Mr. Creech described what it was like to endure the repeated needle jabs, knowing that any of them — if successful — could mean he would be dead within minutes. He described fear, pain, and his commitment to keeping his focus on his wife, who was sitting just a few feet away in the witness room, behind a glass panel.

In the last five years, there have been at least nine botched executions in five states, most of them involving execution team members failing to access a vein, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In at least one case, executioners were finally able to access a prisoner’s vein and complete the execution only by cutting into his arm. In others, the executions were abandoned.

Experts have said execution team members may struggle to find a suitable vein because of a lack of experience or because of factors like a prisoner’s age, weight, health and previous drug use.

Many states have also had difficulty acquiring lethal drugs necessary for executions. As problems mounted, Alabama executed a man earlier this year using nitrogen gas — a first in the United States — though that, too, led to claims that the prisoner suffered.

Mr. Creech, who is considered a serial killer and is one of the longest-serving death row prisoners in the country, has offered conflicting accounts about his crimes over the years. At one point, he testified that he had killed as many as 42 people, some of them on behalf of a motorcycle gang or as part of a Satanic religious ritual. Later, he took back many of those supposed admissions and said he had been put up to the claims by a fame-seeking lawyer.

More recently, and in his interview with The Times, he has said that he believed he had killed seven people. He claimed that he was in the throes of drug abuse at the time and that his victims had all been involved in a gang-rape of his former wife, who later died by suicide.

On the books, though, he has been convicted of five murders, including the fatal beating of a fellow prisoner, David Jensen, in 1981, for which he was sentenced to death.

At a meeting of the Idaho Commission on Pardons and Parole this year, Mr. Jensen’s relatives said his death had left a painful void in their lives, and they urged the commission to keep Mr. Creech’s death sentence intact, which it did.

Mr. Creech has now spent decades on death row, where he met his current wife, LeAnn Creech, the mother of a prison guard. Mr. Creech said he started writing to her after the guard encouraged him, and the couple married in 1998.

He said it was his wife’s face that he tried to focus on as he lay on the execution table. A few weeks earlier, he and his lawyers said, the prison warden had taken him into the execution chamber to show him what would happen, pointing out where his wife and stepson would be sitting. Mr. Creech said he understood that the warden was trying to help him, but that he had found the tour to be “terrorizing” and was unable to think of anything else in the days that followed.

On the night before the execution, he ate a last meal of chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy from the prison kitchen, and met with his lawyers, wife and stepson to say goodbye.

The next morning, he prayed with a spiritual adviser and then was strapped to a board inside his cell in the death row unit known as F Block. The board was placed on a cart, which was then rolled into the execution chamber. Part of his body was covered with a sheet.

Mr. Creech recalls looking over to his wife, through the glass, and trying to tell her that he was sorry. Then he remembers the execution team starting with his right arm and failing to find a usable vein. They moved on to his right hand, his left hand and then his ankles.

The team spent about 42 minutes trying to insert an IV line before the execution was called off, according to Mr. Creech’s lawyers.

The director of Idaho’s prison system, Josh Tewalt, said at a news conference afterward that prison officials had done the right thing by stopping the execution.

“We, from the very beginning, try to be very candid and upfront that this isn’t a do-it-at-any-cost process,” he said. “Our first objective is to carry this out with dignity, professionalism and respect. And part of that was training and practicing for the chance that they were unable to establish IV access.”

Mr. Creech and his lawyers do not know who was on the three-member team that was trying to insert needles, and prison officials routinely refuse to identify executioners. One of Mr. Creech’s lawyers, Deborah Czuba, said that the team was made up of three men in blue scrubs who all wore white “mask-like hoods” and goggles that obscured their faces. She said that the lead member of the team announced each step, but did not speak further. Medical ethics guidelines tell doctors not to participate in executions, though some still do.

Though she has represented other clients who have been executed, Ms. Czuba said Mr. Creech was the first whose attempted execution she witnessed. She said she believed that the procedure had a devastating mental health effect on everyone who saw it, including the execution team members. And for Mr. Creech, she said, that trauma will be particularly acute.

“I don’t think it’s something you get beyond,” she said. “I think it’s that scarring, mental-health-wise. It just really devastates a person in a way they can’t come back from.”

The needle jabs stung a bit, Mr. Creech said, but it was his wife’s distressed expression that has stayed in his mind. “That look on her face tore my heart out,” he said.

When the execution was called off just before 11 a.m., Mr. Creech said, he had trouble believing that he had really survived. In fact, he said, he still does.

“I thought maybe I might already be in the afterlife,” he said. “Even now, today, I stop and I have to catch myself and think, ‘Am I really dead? I was supposed to be dead on the 28th of February. Am I really dead, and this is part of the afterlife? Continued punishment for my sins that I’ve committed?’”

He said he has had nightmares ever since that day. In one, he is watching helplessly as his wife is put on the execution table instead of him. In another, he is brought back to the execution chamber and strapped down for a second attempt.

The latter scenario may become a reality, though prison officials have not yet said whether they plan to seek another death warrant to execute him.

Mr. Creech’s lawyers have asked a judge to nullify his death sentence, arguing that it would be unconstitutional to execute him after already subjecting him to one botched attempt, asserting that doing so would be both “cruel and unusual” and constitute double jeopardy.

The prisoner who was executed with nitrogen gas in Alabama, Kenneth Smith, survived a botched lethal injection before the state tried again with the novel method.

For now, Mr. Creech remains in his cell, waiting to hear whether he will be taken back to the execution chamber next door for another attempt, and wondering whether he would prefer a firing squad. Idaho approved use of that execution method last year, joining several other states including South Carolina and Oklahoma. But no state has used it since Utah carried out an execution by firing squad in 2010.

“I’ve thought before that if they had that, I would probably choose the firing squad,” he said. “Because unless they’re really bad aims, they’re not going to miss.”

In a recent court filing, Mr. Creech said he often sits in his cell and stares at the prison block next door — the one with the execution chamber — and loses track of time.

“One day, I lost 45 minutes that way,” he said — almost as long as he had spent in the chamber on the day he was supposed to die.

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