On this date in 2005, Brian Steckel was executed by lethal injection for a Delaware rape-murder.
Steckel got 29-year-old Sandra Lee Long to let him into her apartment on the pretext of making a phone call. (This was 1994, pre-cell phones.) Then he throttled her, sodomized her, raped her with a screwdriver, and set her bedroom on fire. Then he fled. (Long survived the immediate attack; she would die of smoke inhalation from the arson.)
Hours later, he called The News Journal identifying himself as the “Driftwood Killer” and threatening his next prospective victim by name. Police took that woman into protective custody and traced harassing calls she’d been receiving to Steckel, who obligingly confessed when arrested.
And investigators took Steckel’s threats at their word — as well they might with Long’s ghastly murder already under his belt — and counted themselves lucky to have nipped a potential spree killer in the bud. Steckel “thought about committing a murder for a long time,” New Castle County detective John Downs said. “We got him relatively early in his career. This was something he’d worked at.”
Fond of the drink and none too stable, Steckel menaced his own attorneys, spat at prosecutors, soaked up the media attention, and sent dozens of letters from prison, including Long’s autopsy sent to Long’s mother with a scribbled taunt reading “Happy, Happy. Joy Joy. Read it and weep. She’s gone forever. Don’t cry over burnt flesh.” He also made and retracted various dubious confessions to various murders in various states, and alternated between slandering his (known) victim and calling himself an “animal” for killing her.
If the evil was unfeigned, so was the remorse. At the end of his trial, he surprisingly addressed the the jury with an assent to his own execution.
I didn’t know how to say I’m sorry. How do you tell someone’s family you’re sorry for strangling them? … How do you do such a thing? I don’t know. I ask you people to hold me accountable for what I did. I’ve gotten away with so much in my life that I stand here today … I know I deserve to die for what I did to Sandy. … I’m prepared to give up my life because I deserve to.
He carried a like sentiment to the gurney, where he was apologetic to the victim’s mother he had once mocked.
I want to say I’m sorry for the cruel things I did. I’m not the same man I was when I came to jail. I changed. I’m a better man … I walked in here without a fight, and I accept my punishment. It is time to go. I love you people … I’m at peace.
At this point where the repentant felon ought to close his eyes and exit, an awkward 12-minute delay followed while the lethal injection machine clicked several times and Steckel remained lucid, appending his last statement with observations like, “I didn’t think it would take this long.”
While state officials denied there was any problem with the exceedingly slow lethal injection, Steckel did not appear to have been rendered unconscious, and was awake when he finally snorted and convulsed into death.
Attorney Michael Wiseman, pursuing a later lawsuit against the state’s death penalty procedure, claimed that the main IV line was blocked and when executioners switched to the backup line, they didn’t bother (pdf) re-administering the anesthetic sodium thiopental that forms the first drug of the basic three-drug lethal injection cocktail. That omission meant that Steckel would have been conscious when he was hit with a paralytic dose of pancuronium bromide, and still conscious when that was followed with an excrutiating heart-stopping shot of potassium chloride. (More on the process.)
Wiseman even got a member of the execution team to testify that he was “okay with” causing Steckel suffering owing to the bestial nature of Steckel’s crimes. (The source for this is the January 29, 2009 News Journal; the article is no longer available online.)
A federal circuit court rapped Delaware for “occasional blitheness” and “isolated examples of maladministration,” but rejected the lawsuit.
After a five-plus year hiatus following Steckel’s execution, the Blue Hen State resumed executions in 2011, switching for the occasion to the trendy new anesthetic drug pentobarbital since execution chambers can no longer get hold of sodium thiopental. Just like Brian Steckel.