Alabama suspends executions after lethal injection problems

Alabama’s governor on Monday issued a sweeping executive order suspending all executions in the state and calling for a review of Alabama’s execution process after a series of problems with the supply of lethal injection drugs this year.

The move by Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, comes four days after prison officials said they were unable to insert one of two IV lines into Kenneth Eugene Smith before his death sentence expired at midnight. This episode marked the third time this year that Alabama executioners failed to reach the veins of a death row prisoner and the second time in less than two months that problems forced the state to call off an execution.

“In the interests of the victims and their families, we need to get this right,” Ms Ivey said in a statement. Referring to the William C. Holman prison, where the execution chamber is located, she added, “I just can’t in good conscience bring another victim’s family to Holman for justice and closure until I’m confident.” , that we can carry out the final conviction”.

Ms Ivey said she asked the Attorney General to withdraw Alabama’s two pending execution date requests and not make any further requests until the investigation was complete. It was not clear if Steve Marshall, the attorney general, would comply with the request. Mr Marshall’s spokesman Mike Lewis said the attorney general had read the governor’s comments “with interest” and would “have more to say on that at a later date”.

Ms Ivey ordered prison officials to review their execution records “top to bottom” but also said she didn’t believe prison officials or anyone in law enforcement was to blame, instead blaming the problems on “legal tactics” and criminals who hijack the system.”

Lawyers for prisoners on death row often launch a spate of appeals just before an execution to try to delay or stop it. In Alabama’s two most recent executions, those appeals stretched into the night, meaning prison officials had less time after their Supreme Court dismissal to carry out the executions before the death sentences expired at midnight.

Defense attorneys and detainees have criticized the claim that they and their clients are responsible for the difficult access to the veins, which in some cases took several hours.

“It was Alabama’s agonizing and failed attempt to get IV access that caused — forced — her to call off the executions,” said Maurie Levin, a death row prisoner attorney who practices outside of Alabama.

She noted that more experienced attorneys often take on death row cases as an execution date approaches and, in some cases, find issues that previous attorneys have overlooked and obtain court orders or grace periods that halt executions.

“It would be foolhardy to condemn acts that could help us avoid the execution of innocent people,” Ms. Levin said.

A number of factors, including a prisoner’s weight, past drug use and age, can make it difficult for a person to access their veins, said Dr. Leonidas G. Koniaris, professor of surgery at Indiana University School of Medicine, who has written extensively on lethal injections. The average age of people on Alabama’s death row is about 55 years.

Some people also have sub-par veins, said Dr. Koniaris, and shackles on a prisoner can also complicate the process. When prison officers do not have easy access to a vein, they often turn to inserting a larger and longer central catheter in the neck, chest, or groin.

Alabama’s executions came under scrutiny this year following the execution of Joe Nathan James in July. Death chamber personnel struggled for hours to gain access to his veins and, according to a private autopsy, cut one of his arms in a so-called “cutdown.” Then, in September, executioners were unable to insert an IV line into Alan Eugene Miller’s veins before the death sentence was due to expire.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Smith have both been returned to their cells and are among only a handful of people to have survived an attempted execution by lethal injection. In a similar case in the state in 2018, prison officials were unable to connect Doyle Lee Hamm, who survived the episode and died of natural causes in prison last year.

Commissioner John Q. Hamm, who is in charge of the state’s prison system, said he supports the review and that “everything is on the table” for consideration, including the state’s response to last-minute appeals, the timing of executions and the “Equipment involved.”