Gov. Kay Ivey lifts Alabama execution moratorium

DOC says internal review of death penalty protocols complete following botched executions

By: - February 24, 2023 3:11 pm
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey walks down a ramp with painting company owner Russell Lackey, a friend of the governor. Ivey wears a white suit; Lackey wears a dark suit with a pale blue tie.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announces that DOC has completed internal review of execution process. She sent a letter to the AGs Office to begin issuing warrants for executions. (Photo/Stew Milne)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey Friday ended a three-month moratorium on executions in the state after the Alabama Department of Corrections said it had completed an internal investigation of its death penalty procedures.

“After discussing the matter with my staff, I am confident that the department is as prepared as possible to resume carrying out executions consistent with the mandates of the Constitution,” ADOC Commissioner John Hamm wrote in a letter to Ivey, dated Friday. “This is true in spite of the fact that death row inmates will continue seeking to evade their lawfully-imposed death sentences.”

Hamm’s letter did not specify what if anything changed in the state’s death penalty protocol after three botched execution attempts between July and November of last year. It was also not clear if Hamm delivered a report to Ivey outlining the review or its conclusions.

A message seeking comment was sent to Ivey’s office on Friday. An ADOC spokesperson said Friday the office had no further comment

The move brought criticism from groups that had sought an independent review of Alabama’s execution procedures.

“Throughout this process, we have argued that it is unreasonable to believe that the agency responsible for botching multiple executions can thoroughly investigate itself and suggest remedies to correct its own behavior,” said JaTaune Bosby Gilchrist, the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, in a statement.  “Today’s announcement that ADOC’s investigation is complete is troubling and proves our worst concerns. It is irresponsible to believe that the state-sponsored torture of individuals would end if given more time and practice.”

Ivey Friday asked Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to request death warrants for death row inmates. Marshall filed a motion Friday to set an execution date for James Edward Barber, convicted of murder during a 2003 robbery.

“Far too many Alabama families have waited for far too long — often for decades — to obtain justice for the loss of a loved one and to obtain closure for themselves,” the governor wrote in a letter to Marshall. “This brief pause in executions was necessary to make sure that we can successfully deliver that justice and that closure.”

Marshall, who criticized the moratorium last year, said in a statement Friday that he is pleased with the governor’s notice.

“I am pleased that Governor Ivey and the Department of Corrections have completed their review of their execution processes and feel confident that the travesty of justice that occurred in November of last year will not be repeated,” he said.

Botched executions

In July, the execution of Joe Nathan James Jr. by lethal injection was delayed for two-and-a-half hours. The Atlantic later reported that an autopsy found multiple puncture wounds on his body, suggesting officials had difficulty finding a vein to inject James with the three drugs used in the method.

A bag of the sedative midazolam, with tubing and a needle attached
According to Alabama Department of Corrections protocols, midazolam is the first drug used in the state’s lethal injection process. (Getty)

DOC officials claimed they could not confirm whether he was unconscious before the fatal cocktail of drugs were administered.

Alan Miller’s execution was called off in September after DOC staff tried for two hours to establish a line to administer the drugs into his vein. Kenneth Eugene Smith’s execution was called off in November for the same reason.

Ivey ordered a review of executions shortly after but blamed “legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system” for the problems without addressing the issues with the IV lines. The Alabama Supreme Court also changed a rule that required executions to take place before midnight on the scheduled day of execution. The new rule allows the governor to set a timeframe for executions.

Critics said DOC could not be trusted to evaluate itself and called for an independent investigation of the state’s execution methods. Earlier this month, Montgomery faith leaders delivered a letter to Ivey’s office signed by 170 clergy that called for an outside review of the state’s execution methods.

“Justice must always be tempered with compassion, and with human and some divine insight,” Rev. Manuel B. Williams said during the press conference in early February.

Attorneys and advocates sent a letter to the governor’s office on Thursday making the same request. Robyn Hyden, the executive director of Alabama Arise, said in a statement that DOC “still needs to pull back the curtains and provide greater public transparency on execution procedures.”

“All Alabamians deserve equal justice under the law,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, the Department of Corrections’ internal review of the state’s execution process did not resolve many of the injustices that remain throughout our capital punishment system.”

Hamm wrote in his letter to Ivey that DOC personnel evaluated the department’s legal strategy, training procedures and the equipment used, along with increasing the medical personnel the department would use during executions.

Hamm wrote that DOC will increase available medical personnel and vetting them will begin immediately. He also stated that the department has ordered and received new equipment that it will use for future executions. The letter did not say where the equipment came from or how DOC, which has struggled to fill vacant positions in its prisons, will hire the staff.

Hamm wrote that staff have “conducted multiple rehearsals” of executions to make sure that staff are trained and prepared.


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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.