Alabama’s cruel and unusual execution protocol results in another botched execution

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For the second time in two months, Alabama botched an execution. Corrections officials ended their attempt to kill Kenneth Smith on November 17 after trying and failing for over an hour to find a usable vein for its lethal drugs.

On Friday, a judge granted Smith’s lawyers’ motion to preserve evidence of his injuries from the botched procedure. They asked that “documentation of his injuries and notes, records, photographs, videos, emails and texts between [ADOC Commissioner John] Hamm, the warden, and any corrections department officials involved in the execution, be preserved as well as all medical supplies used,” CNN reported.

The problems with Smith’s attempted killing are all too familiar in Alabama. His was the third execution this year that was botched and the fourth since 2018. All are related to the execution team’s inability to insert IV lines. 

In 2018, Doyle Hamm’s execution was called off after a two-and-a-half-hour ordeal that was so botched it left Hamm bruised, punctured, and limping from the attempted execution,” his attorney, Bernard Harcourt, wrote in a blog post. In a later post, he wrote, This was clearly a botched execution that can only be accurately described as torture.” 

The same could be said for the two more recent executions in Alabama. The July 28 execution of Joe Nathan James, Jr. was a “long death,” according to Elizabeth Bruenig in a harrowing account in the Atlantic. She writes of the execution teams several botched attempts to insert catheters into Jamess hands and arms, causing severe pain,further evidence that the IV team was unqualified for the task in a most dramatic way” as the physician who conducted his autopsy told her. 

Alan Miller’s attempted execution on September 22 was just as horrific. In another story for the Atlantic, Bruenig, who was at Holman Prison to witness the attempted killing of Miller, interviewed him after it had been called off. He told Bruenig of the constant puncturing by the execution team over the 60-90 minutes they searched for a usable vein. The team eventually left the room without explanation, flipped the gurney Miller was lying on into a vertical position and left him “hanging off the upright gurney, his hands and one foot bleeding from failed IV attempts, waiting to die,” she reported.

(An unnamed source told the Death Penalty Information Center that “Miller had ‘about 18 needle marks’ in his arms and legs after the failed execution.”)

It remains to be seen whether Alabama will try to kill Miller and Smith again. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall was so eager to try again just two weeks after Miller’s killing was botched, that he asked the state Supreme Court to set another execution date for him. He was so eager that he filed an expedited motion, asking the court to set Miller’s date before a pending request for a date to execute another man on death row. But the Montgomery Advertiser reports that Marshall has now asked the Alabama Supreme Court to suspend its expedited motion for a new execution date for Miller, who has filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that a second execution attempt using lethal injection would be unconstitutional.

Smith’s attorneys will undoubtedly seek a similar settlement with the state. 

After Doyle Hamm’s failed execution, Harcourt filed a civil rights suit, and the state entered into a confidential settlement with Hamm, “preventing any further execution attempts.” In addition, the state was forced to make public its previously secret lethal injection protocol and release its records relating to Hamm’s execution. Hamm died in December 2021 of cancer.

In an email after Miller’s botched execution, Harcourt commented that it was “utterly unconscionable what they did to everyone last night, utterly unconscionable.” And he told the Washington Post, “What it demonstrates is we really shouldn’t be giving these incompetent bureaucrats the power over life and death.”

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