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Alabama says it’s not ready to execute death row prisoners using controversial new method

Alabama had been preparing to become the first state in the United States to execute a prisoner using nitrogen hypoxia. Alan Eugene Miller was scheduled to be put to death on 22 September 2022 using this method. However, this may no longer be the case.

According to Sky News, Miller, who was convicted of killing three men in a workplace shooting rampage in 1999 near Birmingham, Alabama, signed a document in 2018 opting for nitrogen hypoxia as his form of execution rather than lethal injection, due to a serious fear of needles.

Execution by nitrogen hypoxia would involve the offender breathing in a gas mixture of pure nitrogen and, unlike lethal injection, would be reportedly painless. Michael Copeland, a proponent of this method, told The Atlantic, “In industrial accidents, it often happens because the victim does not know they are in a hypoxic environment, that suffocating feeling of anxiety and discomfort is not associated with hypoxic deaths.”

Copeland went on to state: “The condemned person might not even know when the switch to pure nitrogen occurs, instead he would simply lose consciousness about fifteen seconds after the switch was made. Approximately thirty seconds later, he would stop producing brain waves, and the heart would stop beating about two to three minutes after that.”

In 2018, Alabama became the third state, following Mississippi and Oklahoma, to legalise the new execution method. And while some were accepting of this new move, others were more critical—deeming it an insensitive “human experiment.”

It has now come to light that Miller may not be able to pursue his chosen form of execution. In a turn of events, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that on 15 September 2022, the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections attested in an affidavit entered in federal court that the state would be unable to execute Miller by nitrogen hypoxia by his scheduled date

In a statement that followed, the commissioner emphasised that further staff training was needed before the protocol for the new method of execution could be put into practice. Meanwhile, Miller’s attorneys have strongly argued that the state is depriving their client of equal protection under the law, forcing him to carry out his death penalty through a method he outwardly rejected.

Death by lethal injection has also garnered widespread attention recently after prisoner Joe Nathan James Jr was forced to painfully endure a three hour long execution, which state officials insisted was “nothing out of the ordinary.”

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, warns that inmates such as Miller may be making “an uninformed choice.”

“The odds of being tortured to death by lethal injection are pretty substantial,” the expert told CNN. “The odds of a botch with nitrogen hypoxia are uncertain. I think it’s a choice to avoid a sure bad thing, as opposed to an affirmative embrace of nitrogen hypoxia.”

Alabama death row prisoner subjected to 3 ‘hours of pain’ during botched execution

In what some described as the longest lethal injection in recorded US history, and perhaps even the longest execution ever using any method, the execution of Alabama prisoner Joe Nathan James Jr, 50, on 29 July 2022 is said to have lasted between three and three and a half hours. James Jr was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the 1994 killing of 26-year-old Faith Hall in Birmingham, Alabama.

While state officials have insisted that there was “nothing out of the ordinary” about the inmate’s execution, an examination by Reprieve US has denounced the cruel and inhumane delay. “Subjecting a prisoner to three hours of pain and suffering is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment,” the director of Reprieve US, Maya Foa, said in a statement, as reported by The Guardian.

James Jr and his victim had briefly dated before Hall rejected him, leading the man to shoot her three times, investigators revealed. Although Hall’s daughters—who were three and six when their mother was murdered—wanted James Jr to spend the rest of his life in prison, they never pleaded for him to be executed.

Even so, Alabama officials pumped lethal injection drugs into James Jr on the night of 28 July. The prisoner was supposed to be put to death at 6 pm that evening, but it wasn’t until about 9 pm that media witnesses were allowed to enter the execution chamber. Then, it wasn’t until 9.27 pm that officials pronounced James Jr dead.

After receiving backlash for such a delay, state officials modified their statement, disclosing that James Jr’s executioners had experienced trouble establishing the intravenous lines carrying the lethal drugs.

With the help of James Jr’s autopsy as well as sources quoted in a recent report by The Atlantic, Reprieve US maintains that it is obvious his lethal injection began around the initial time it was supposed to start, long before the media witnesses were allowed to enter the execution chamber.

“The organisation said James’ execution team unsuccessfully tried for three hours or more to insert an IV line before attempting a cut-down procedure that may have caused the condemned man to struggle, leaving him with injuries on his hands and wrists,” wrote The Guardian.

Hall’s family members did not attend James Jr’s execution. “Today is a tragic day for our family. We are having to relive the hurt that this caused us many years ago,” the family’s statement issued through state representative Juandalynn Givan’s office read.

“We hoped the state wouldn’t take a life simply because a life was taken and we have forgiven Mr Joe Nathan James Jr for his atrocities toward our family,” it concluded.

Reprieve US said it reviewed more than 275 botched executions in the US (involving all methods) since 1890. Many have compared James Jr’s story to the 2018 execution of Alabama’s convicted murderer, Doyle Lee Hamm, who had officials spend two and a half hours puncturing his legs and groin in an unsuccessful attempt to pump lethal injection drugs into his body.

Hamm’s execution was called off as he bled on a gurney. He died in 2021 of cancer.