Alabama Department of Corrections’ internal execution review draws criticism

Reform advocates called for independent review after string of botched executions last year

By: - February 28, 2023 7:00 am
A three story prison dorm with aluminum siding and outside stairs rises behind a barbed wire fence. A guard tower can be seen in the background.

A prison dorm at Holman Correctional Facility on Oct. 23, 2019. (File)

Death penalty reform advocates have expressed doubt and concern over the Alabama Department of Corrections’ review of its own process.

In interviews Monday, several advocates who pushed for an independent review of the state’s execution protocols questioned the short timeframe of review and the lack of transparency.

Some were surprised by Gov. Kay Ivey’s announcement Friday afternoon that the internal review by the ADOC had already been completed.

“I think we are just deeply disappointed that our letter and our request were not honored,” said Rabbi Scott Looper, a rabbi of Temple Beth Or in Montgomery who signed a letter with 170 members of the clergy calling for an independent review of the state’s execution methods. “In relation to the sanctity of life and rights of all human beings, it was just a tragic sort of response.”

Ivey ordered a review of the death penalty in Alabama last November following a string of botched executions.

In July, the execution of Joe Nathan James Jr. took over two and a half hours. The Atlantic later reported that an independent autopsy report found multiple puncture wounds on his body, suggesting that staff had a hard time finding a vein to inject James with the three drugs used in lethal injection.

In September, the execution of Alan Miller was called off after Corrections staff tried for two hours to establish an IV line to administer the drugs. Miller later said that he was left bleeding while hung vertically on a gurney. Kenneth Eugene Smith’s execution was called off in November for similar reasons.

Critics like Looper had misgivings about the ADOC overseeing the investigation into its own conduct of executions, and called for an outside review.  As an example, they cited Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s order of a third-party review of the state’s lethal injection process last year. The letter from the clergy also cited Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s creation of an independent commission to review the death penalty procedures in that state, after a botched attempt to execute death row inmate Clayton Lockett in 2014.

“States all over the country have shown that they can’t figure out how to execute in a way that would not cause harm to the people who are executed, to the people who are participating in the execution, to doctors and specialists who are part of it, and to the larger community,” said Sarah Craft, director of the Equal Justice USA death penalty program, an organization working to reform the criminal justice system.

Janette Grantham, the executive director for Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL), a crime victims’ rights group, supported Ivey’s decision.

“I mean that is the law, and she didn’t ever say she was going to stop it altogether,” she said. “If people didn’t go around killing each other, we wouldn’t have this problem. If we lived in a perfect world, but we don’t because people have to take other people’s lives. They should know there is a chance they could get the death penalty. They made a choice.”

Ivey Friday asked Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to request execution warrants from the state Supreme Court. Marshall said he seek would request a warrant to execute James Edward Barber, convicted of murder during a 2003 robbery.

ADOC Commissioner John Hamm wrote in a letter to Ivey Friday that DOC had evaluated its legal training, procedures and equipment. Hamm said the department planned to hire additional medical personnel and had run practice executions.

The commissioner also said that a new rule from the Alabama Supreme Court allowing Ivey to set a “timeframe” for an execution would relieve “deadline pressure” when executions took place. Under the previous rules, executions had to take place on a certain date. If the execution did not take place before midnight on that day, the execution was called off and the state would have to seek a new warrant.

In her letter to Marshall, Ivey said that Alabama was ready to begin carrying out executions “even knowing that death-row inmates will continue doing everything in their power to evade justice.” Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which conducts research on capital punishment, said the letter did not address the concerns over the execution methods.

“I was looking for more transparency, for more information, for what is actually being changed,” he said. “Obviously Alabama has had serious problems carrying out executions.”

“All I could see is, ‘trust us, we have got this figured out,’” he added.

Dieter also questioned the need for a timeframe, saying it was “embarrassing” to the state that problems in the execution emerged.

“Right now, they have both the problem of doing it, and no outcome, so I think just extending the time to keep making mistakes is not a solution to the mistakes,” he said. “It is trying to get to the end game without correcting the mistakes.”


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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.