It’s been a bad month for executioners in America.

Yesterday, we learned of how Romell Broom, sentenced to death by lethal injection, lay strapped on a gurney for two hours, quietly sobbing while the Ohio execution team prodded and poked at him to find a vein.

Earlier in September, the New Yorker published a remarkable report about Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas in 2004. Willingham was convicted of killing his three daughters by setting their house alight. Forensic evidence now suggests that he was almost certainly innocent.

Both cases illustrate fundamental issues with the administration of capital punishment.

On all kinds of levels, the death penalty depends upon abstractions. Far more people support capital punishment as a vague generality than when they must consider, say, the specifics of Nguyen Tuong Van’s fate in Singapore.

The “humane executions” promised by a modern justice system are part of that comforting abstraction. Yet because the death chamber kills real people — that is, individuals with their own individual idiosyncrasies — scenes such as the one that played out in Ohio are inevitable. Fred Leuchter, the man who designed much of America’s execution equipment, explained it to me like this: “If I build the system and we do everything right, there’s probably a 20% chance that there’s going to be a problem. The human physiology varies so much. I can do it in most cases, [but] there are some cases where it just isn’t going to work.”

Lethal injection — a procedure introduced primarily because it makes the execution easier to watch — is particularly problematic. The ease or otherwise with which executioners can insert a needle depends on many factors. Prisoners who lift weights or inject drugs or are morbidly obese or suffer from a host of other conditions, will pose problems.

Furthermore, the execution teams are not properly trained — and this, too, is not an accident. The American Medical Association insists that its members do not kill and so, in lieu of a real doctor, the needles are generally inserted by incompetent guards.

There’s similar problems with the drugs themselves. Because so few people actually want to think about what happens in a death chamber, the lethal cocktail injected into prisoners was devised by unqualified officials. The drugs cause paralysis; nobody knows whether they cause pain.

The Willingham case raises a slightly different set of issues.

Texas yields to no one in its fervour for capital punishment, despatching four times as many prisoners as any other state. But its wild west for retributive justice corresponds, not coincidentally, with a cowboy indifference to due process.

Willingham’s execution was underpinned by forensic evidence that allegedly proved the fire had been lit with an accelerant. But Craig Beyler, a specialist who re-examined the case, concluded that the initial researchers had discarded “rational reasoning” and relied on methods “characteristic of mystics or psychics”. In fact, the scientific data was entirely consistent with Willingham’s testimony.

Willingham was supposed to have confessed the murder to another prisoner. Yet that informant turned out to be mentally ill; he later recanted.

The fact that a man could die on the basis of so little illustrates a central dynamic of capital punishment. Yes, as everyone knows, the death penalty is partly about race. Even more than that, though, it’s about class.

The New Yorker story makes clear that the prosecution saw Willingham as white trash, the kind of person who would do something like burn his own house down. Despite evidence of Willingham’s devotion to his kids, the district attorney provided him with a simple motive for their murder: “The children were interfering with his beer drinking and dart throwing.”

The image of a sociopathic deadbeat was bolstered by testimony from Tim Gregory, a psychologist, who happened to be a hunting buddy of the assistant DA. Gregory discussed an Iron Maiden poster that hung in Willingham’s house.

“This one is a picture of a skull, with a fist being punched through the skull,” Gregory said; the image displayed “violence” and “death.”

Gregory looked at photographs of other music posters owned by Willingham. “There’s a hooded skull, with wings and a hatchet,” Gregory continued. “And all of these are in fire, depicting — it reminds me of something like hell. And there’s a picture, a Led Zeppelin picture of a falling angel … I see there’s an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times, individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities.”

Typically, Willingham was unemployed; typically, he relied on public defenders; typically, they didn’t do a very good job.

The death rows around American contain, almost exclusively, society’s detritus. It is disposable people who are disposed of: the poor, the crazy or the simply forgotten. That doesn’t mean that they’re all innocent. Clearly, most of them aren’t. But the Willingham case illustrates how easily you can be railroaded to death if you’re the wrong sort of person.

Yes, it’s been a bad month for executioners. But it’s been worse still for inmates.