Journalist describes what she saw during Joe Nathan James’ private autopsy

Published: Aug. 20, 2022 at 12:19 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Shortly after the execution of Joe Nathan James last month, two autopsies were performed on his body. One of them was private and a journalist was in the room to witness it.

Just like WBRC has reported, Elizabeth Bruenig believes there are many unanswered questions surrounding the execution. She is a staff writer for The Atlantic.

About three hours are unaccounted for between when he was scheduled to die by lethal injection and when it actually happened. Bruenig says that’s when everyone realized something went wrong.

Though his execution was scheduled for 6 p.m. on July 28, he wasn’t declared dead until 9:27 p.m.

Bruenig tracks upcoming executions in the United States. Though she tried contacting the Alabama Department of Corrections about being a witness at the execution, she said she never received a response. Instead, she watched and read local reports about the execution night and knew there were unanswered questions.

“It was clear to me the only way to get a sense of what that might’ve been would be to actually be in the presence of Joe Nathan James’ body,” said Bruenig.

She witnessed doctors carry out the private autopsy 12 days after the execution on August 9. Those in the room also include Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University, Boris Datnow, an independent pathologist, and Jay Glass, Datnow’s assistant.

“By looking at the story the body tells, that he had struggled in his last moments, that he had been afraid,” she remembered.

ADOC reports the execution was delayed because of the time it took to establish an IV. They issued this statement following the execution:

“As Commissioner John Hamm stated last night, when carrying out the ultimate punishment, we have protocols that lay out a very deliberate process to make sure the court’s order is carried out correctly. ADOC’s execution team strictly followed the established protocol. The protocol states that if the veins are such that intravenous access cannot be provided, the team will perform a central line procedure. Fortunately, this was not necessary and with adequate time, intravenous access was established.”

Bruenig recalled what she saw inside the autopsy room:

“In both hands, there were marks on the hand and wrist with a lot of bruising, a lot of hemorrhaging that suggested there had been at least IV attempts here. There were what looked like to me, IV attempts and bruising at the inner elbows as well and then at the inside of one elbow, about here, you can see what looks like an incision, like a surgical incision, a cut was made into his arm.”

Bruenig added that the doctors she spoke with believe it was an attempted cutdown, where someone tries to cut open the skin to find a vein they can see. Doctors said this probably happened while James was fully-conscious and they could tell by lacerations created by the gurney straps.

“If you’re strapped down to a table and someone starts essentially performing surgery on you while you’re awake, your probably going to struggle pretty severely,” she continued.

Bruising and punctures were also found on the upper arm where no known or accessible veins are, according to Bruenig.

“The doctors suspected intramuscular injections,” she said. “That would be maybe a sedative. So if you imagine someone starts struggling quite violently, an IV team is attempting to set an IV, you can imagine why a sedative might be introduced at that point. This is against protocol.”

Several weeks ago, ADOC told WBRC in an email that James was not sedated. We reached out to them with questions about the autopsy findings from the state, along with when they will be released. As of Friday night, they have not responded.

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