Alabama execution included an unexplained three-hour delay
The execution of Joe Nathan James took place over the objection of the victim's daughters. Also: What is the Florida education commissioner's issue with a USDA poster?
Alabama’s execution of Joe Nathan James Jr. for the 1994 murder of Faith Hall was to take place — over the objection of the victim’s family — at 6 p.m. Central Time on Thursday, July 28.
The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has to explain what happened.
In the 24 hours leading up to the execution, James had filed a series of requests with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a stay of execution. The requests were filed pro se, meaning without legal counsel, and it showed. The limitations — both under law and by the U.S. Supreme Court — on post-conviction litigation make such attempts at securing a last-minute stay of execution difficult even for seasoned Supreme Court lawyers and appellate capital litigators who know the ins and out of all of the laws and court rules. James’s filings, in contrast, were extremely brief and lacked legal support. (This is an issue that I likely will discuss at more length in the future.) The state’s response was accordingly brief and direct, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied his request more than a half-hour before the execution was to begin. No justices noted their disagreement with the court’s ruling.
As the time of James’s execution drew near, the media witnesses — expecting to be taken to where the execution is carried out — noted an initial delay in their departure. However, that was just to be the start of the complications.
To simplify, here is what happened on Thursday night (all times Central Time), through a combination of media execution witness reports from Lee Hedgepeth, Ivana Hrynkiw Shatara, and Evan Mealins. Lee’s story is here, and Ivana’s is here.
5:23 p.m. Reporters are informed that the U.S. Supreme Court denied the stay request.
6:00 p.m. James’s execution was scheduled to begin.
6:33 p.m. Prison officials take media witnesses to where the execution is to take place.
9:02 p.m. Viewing room curtains were opened shortly after witnesses were brought inside, and “James’ eyes were not open at the beginning of the execution, and he appeared motionless, save for his breathing,” per Hedgepeth.
9:03 p.m. Death warrant read.
9:04 p.m. Execution begins.
9:10 p.m. Consciousness check.
9:12 p.m. James appears to stop breathing.
9:13 p.m. James’s eyes opened slightly.
9:14 p.m. James’s stops all movement.
9:18 p.m. Viewing room curtains were closed.
9:27 p.m. Official time of death for James, per state officials.
Once the media witnesses returned and were able to provide updates and write their stories, they also tried, unsuccessfully, to get answers about the delay.
Later in the night, ADOC Commissioner John Hamm told Josh Gauntt — another reporter on site — that he wasn’t saying anything more about the delay “because of our protocol. Our protocol is something that is not public so we’re not getting into any explanation.”
Additionally, Hrynkiw — who personally dealt with unclear (and, in her case, absurd and sexist) policy enforcement from ADOC earlier in the evening — reported that “Hamm said James was not sedated prior to the procedure starting. He would not elaborate which part of the procedure caused the delay, saying the ADOC ‘took (their) deliberate time.’”1
Public dollars being used for state actions always require transparency. This is heightened when the state is using one of its most extreme powers: Killing one of its citizens. While states certainly can argue that aspects of their execution protocols should be kept secret, Thursday’s unexplained three-hour delay clearly wasn’t the plan. What happened? If it’s something immaterial, making it public will help ease concerns. If it’s material, the public has a right to know.
Either way, Alabama officials have to explain what happened on Thursday night. And, if something went wrong, they need to review their procedures.
In fact, there is — even in very red states — precedent for officials examining what happened after execution-related issues.
After Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee earlier this year called off an execution due to an “oversight” relating to the lethal injection drugs, the Republican governor later halted all executions scheduled for this year and ordered an independent review of the state’s execution procedures.
In Oklahoma, meanwhile, a series of botched or halted executions in the state in 2014 and 2015 led to an initial internal report, a later grand jury investigation, and an independent review of that state’s death penalty laws and policies. (Two of the co-chairs of the independent review this past week called for the state not to go ahead with its plans to execute 25 people between now and the end of 2024.)
Thursday night’s execution was the eighth execution in America this year — and Alabama’s second in 2022.
Law Dork, with Chris Geidner, is independent, reader-supported journalism that seeks to hold government and other public officials accountable. Support this reporting by becoming a free or paid subscriber today.
“AND JUSTICE FOR ALL” A NO-GO IN FLORIDA: On Thursday, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. told superintendents and school boards across the state that displaying the U.S. Department of Agriculture's “And Justice For All” poster “may create a conflict with Florida law.”
The letter from Diaz primarily focused on his claim that federal guidance documents from the Department of Education noting that the definition of “sex” in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” — as the Supreme Court ruled as regarding Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — “are not binding law.” (Thanks to Jim Rosica of City & State Florida for posting the letter.)
When I read that line in his letter about the poster, I thought it was going to be some big thing abut LGBTQ rights in schools or something like that. It’s … not. It’s basically one of those workplace safety signs, but, for nondiscrimination in USDA programs.
“In accordance with Federal law and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) civil rights regulations and policies, this institution is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), age, disability, and reprisal for prior civil rights activity,” the sign states in part.
Interestingly, although Diaz’s letter points to the state’s law banning trans girls or women from girls’ or women’s sports teams (being challenged in court) as his rationale for why schools would “risk violating Florida law” by following the Title IX guidance, he provides no specific state law to explain why posting the USDA poster “may create a conflict with Florida law.”
It would be notable if H.B. 1557, the “Don’t Say Gay” law (that is also being challenged in court), is the Florida law with which the education commissioner believes the poster could conflict.
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This paragraph was added as an update at 12:30 p.m. July 29.