Review of executions in Alabama to take place, so what’s next?

Published: Dec. 8, 2022 at 8:26 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 8, 2022 at 10:11 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Two weeks ago, Governor Kay Ivey put a temporary hold on executions after an unprecedented third failed execution.

The latest failure was with Kenneth Smith in November. Smith was convicted twice in a murder for hire plot in 1988 that killed Elizabeth Sennett, a pastor’s wife.

Smith’s execution was called off just before the death warrant expired after the state spent an hour trying to set IV lines. Despite a temporary stay, Smith’s attorneys claim he was strapped to a gurney for four hours, poked and prodded, and not told a federal court had stayed his execution.

“We did gain access to one vein access on the condemned. We went to our protocol of a central line. We were not able to have time to complete that, so we called off the execution,” John Hamm, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, said.

After that failed attempt, Ivey called for a top to bottom review of the execution protocols, which caught Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall off guard.

“Insofar as I and my office are concerned, there is no moratorium, nor will there be on capital punishment in Alabama,” Marshall said.

During a press conference earlier this week, Marshall didn’t mince words clearly illustrating his firm stance on the death penalty.

“We acknowledge that there are crimes so heinous, atrocious, and cruel, so depraved, that the only just punishment is death,” Marshall said.

Marshall is allowing the review process to take place. Marshall says the process needs to be expedited. But groups like the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that tracks executions across the country, feel Ivey’s move is the right decision.

“When you see a pattern like this, I think it calls for a lengthy investigation because it’s not just one execution that’s gone wrong,” Ngozi Ndulue with the DPIC said.

After the delayed execution of Joe Nathan James in July, we pressed ADOC Commissioner John Hamm about why media witnesses sat in a van for hours waiting to go inside the execution chamber. Below is the exchange between Josh Gauntt and Hamm.

Gauntt: “They [reporters] were in the media van for over two hours. Can you explain a little more as to why there was a delay?”

Hamm: “No, sir.”

Gauntt: “Why not?”

Hamm: “No, sir.”

Gauntt: “Why not?”

Hamm: “Because of our protocols. Our protocol is something that’s not public. So, we’re not getting into any explanation.”

The execution process in Alabama is shrouded in secrecy. Recently, we got hands on a confidential document laying out execution procedures in Alabama dated March 2021. It was part of a lawsuit filed by Kenneth Smith against ADOC. A lot of it is redacted. In the part about lethal injection, it says members of the execution team will be escorted into the execution chamber to start the IV. The heart monitor leads will be applied to the condemned. It goes onto say “if the veins are such that intravenous access can’t be provided (redacted) will perform a central line procedure to provide an intravenous access.”

Shortly after that, the curtains to the witness rooms will be opened and then it talks about what happens in the minutes before someone is put to death including how the warden administers the lethal injection cocktail made up of at least five solutions.

So why can’t Alabama complete this process? Who’s on the execution team? What are their qualifications? Questions Hamm was asked about last month.

“I don’t know personally what their medical qualifications are, but they are medical professionals,” Hamm said.

Marshall feels Smith and Alan Miller, another death row inmate whose execution was called off, used delaying tactics in court at the last minute.

“Justice delayed is justice denied and the clear record is that the delay relating to these executions lies at the feet of the inmates and their lawyers and not the state of Alabama,” Marshall said.

Where do we go from here? We don’t know what the execution review will look like or how long it will take.

Ndulue hopes the state will look into every intricate detail that goes into an execution before Smith and others face their punishment.

“Any investigation is going to have to look at a number of things. Training, protocols, procedures, where there’s accountability. I think that there are a lot of things to look at,” Ndulue said.

Some groups say the execution review needs to be independent, but Marshall doesn’t feel that’s necessary.

The AG says his department would not seek an execution date unless it was confident that it would be carried out.

There are currently no pending dates before the Alabama Supreme Court.

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