Alabama suspends execution after inmate demands novel way to die

Ruling gets at larger questions around state’s execution protocols

Why the death penalty isn't working for America

The state of Alabama can’t execute a death row prisoner via lethal injection, a federal court ruled this week, holding that the man elected to die by nitrogen gas using a process the state hadn’t adequately finalised.

Alan Eugene Miller, a former delivery driver, was sentenced to death after killing three people on the job in 1999 in the city of Birmingham.

Once on death row, he claims he opted to be executed via nitrogen hypoxia, a process which Alabama authorised in 2018 as it struggled to secure lethal injections drugs from wary pharmaceutical companies. The Alabama Department of Corrections then lost his paperwork, he says.

Alan Eugene Miller

"I did not want to be stabbed with a needle," Miller once said in court, recounting painful past experiences drawing blood.

The state, meanwhile, said Miller never asked to be killed with nitrogen, and planned to execute him via lethal injection on 22 September.

On Monday, a federal judge sided with Miller, and ruled that the state wasn’t prepared to use the new nitrogen gas method, a protocol that’s never been tried on an inmate in the state.

Moving forward with the execution, judge Austin Huffaker Jr wrote, would cause Miller “irreparable injury” because he would be "deprived of the ability to die by the method he chose and instead will be forced to die by a method he sought to avoid and which he asserts will be painful."

The ruling means the state can’t move forward with the execution by any other method than nitrogen gas without a court order.

Prior to Miller’s planned killing, state officials equivocated about whether they were ready to use the process, which has been proposed as a more humane form of execution, but which remains untested in three states where it is legal, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.

During a 12 September hearing, Alabama said there was a “very good chance” the nitrogen process would be ready for Miller’s execution. Just three days later, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm submitted an affidavit saying the opposite.

“The ADOC cannot carry out an execution by nitrogen hypoxia on September 22, 2022,” it read.

It is unclear whether the state intends to appeal the ruling.

The Independent has contacted the Alabama Department of Corrections for comment.

The state, like all those that use the death penalty, has struggled to find a reliable and humane way to carry out executions.

In 2018, the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm was called off because executioners couldn’t find a vein for the lethal injection drugs after puncturing his skin 11 times over the course of hours.

This July, Joe Nathan James faced a similarly lengthy execution, where observers to an autopsy said Alabama officials had to slice into the man’s skin to place an IV line, acting outside state rules.

The new execution method looks no better, according to experts. For one thing, because it is strange combination of an execution using medical technology, it’s ethically impossible to test.

"There could be no legitimate research. There’s no way you could design a research project that would be ethical ... There will never be a human study. It has no medical reason to be conducted and would never pass any kind of ethical oversight that would permit such a thing to take place," Dr Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University, told CNN.

States like Oklahoma have struggled with botched lethal injection executions of their own, where officials mistakenly swapped drugs and inmates writhed in agony while strapped to gurneys.

Because medical companies are often loathe to sell their drugs for use in executions, states like South Carolina have turned to archaic execution methods like the firing squad as an alternative.

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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