After 3rd failed lethal injection, governor asks for pause on executions in Alabama

Gov. Kay Ivey speaks to supporters at her watch party after Alabama voted in midterm elections, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Montgomery, Ala. AP Photo/Vasha Hunt

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has requested a pause on executions in the state and ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of its capital punishment system after a series of failed lethal injections. Alabama has been under the national spotlight in recent months as its executioners have consistently failed to connect intravenous lines into the veins of death row inmates.

The move comes after the uncompleted execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday, marking Alabama’s second failed execution in just two months and its third since 2018. The state was able to put an inmate to death in July, but only after a three-hour delay caused in part because technicians could not establish an IV line.

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Ivey’s office issued a statement requesting that Attorney General Steve Marshall withdraw motions to seek execution dates for Alan Eugene Miller and James Edward Barber, two death row inmates who are currently awaiting execution. Ivey has also asked the Department of Corrections to undertake a full review of the state’s execution process.

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The Republican governor also asked that Marshall not seek additional execution dates for any other death row inmates until the review is complete.

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Ivey denied that prison officials or law enforcement are to blame for the problems within Alabama’s capital punishment system, saying that “legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.”

“For the sake of the victims and their families, we’ve got to get this right,” she said.

Marshall has not confirmed if he will comply with Ivey’s request. The attorney general has “read the governor’s and commissioner’s comments with interest” and “will have more to say on this at a later date,” said spokesman Mike Lewis.

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Recent botched executions

Alabama’s execution team attempted to put convicted murderer Smith to death on Thursday after a late-night court battle, but were ultimately unsuccessful in establishing two IV drips.

On Thursday evening, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a last-minute stay of execution for Smith after his lawyers raised concerns about problems with IV lines at Alabama’s last two scheduled lethal injections. At about 10:20 p.m. that night, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the stay and cleared the way for Alabama to execute Smith.

Smith was convicted as one of two men who were each paid US$1,000 in 1988 to kill Elizabeth Sennett, a preacher’s wife. Sennett’s husband was deeply in debt and paid the men to kill his wife in order to collect an insurance policy. Sennett’s husband killed himself when he became a suspect and the other man who was paid to kill Sennet was executed in 2010.

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Smith’s death warrant expired on Thursday at midnight so executioners had less than two hours to perform the lethal injection. Executioners were able to establish one IV line, according to Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm, but after over an hour and trying several locations on Smith’s body, they were unable to connect a second line. The execution was called off.

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Two months before Smith’s incomplete execution, Alabama was forced to call off the execution of death row inmate Miller, who was mentioned in Ivey’s request.

Miller’s execution also required a last-minute clearance from the Supreme Court after a legal fight over whether the state lost his paperwork requesting a different execution method. Miller had requested death by nitrogen hypoxia because he dislikes needles and medical practitioners often have trouble finding his veins.

Miller was sentenced to death after being convicted of a 1999 workplace rampage in which he killed three.

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Though execution by lethal injection was cleared by the Supreme Court, Alabama executioners were unable to access his veins. Miller said in a court filing that prison staff poked him with needles for more than an hour, and at one point left him hanging vertically on a gurney before announcing they were stopping. Prison officials have maintained the delays were the result of the state carefully following procedures.

In July, Alabama managed to successfully execute Joe Nathan James Jr. through lethal injection, but it took around three hours for executioners to establish IV lines, leading the anti-death-penalty group Reprieve US Forensic Justice Initiative to claim the execution was botched.

James was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1994 shooting death of Faith Hall, who he had briefly dated and then became obsessed with.

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In 2018, Alabama had to call off the execution of Doyle Hamm due to issues connecting the IV lines. Hamm had damaged veins because of lymphoma, hepatitis and past drug use, his lawyer said. Hamm later died in prison of natural causes.

Hamm was convicted in the slaying of Patrick Cunningham, who was shot in the head while working an overnight desk shift at a motel in Cullman. Police said $410 was taken during the holdup.

— With files from The Associated Press

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