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Dead to Rights: What did the state of Alabama do to Joe Nathan James in the three hours before his execution?

This much is undisputed: In 1994, Joe Nathan James Jr. murdered Faith Hall, a mother of two he had formerly dated; in 1999, he was sentenced to death in Jefferson County, Alabama; and he was executed on July 28, 2022. Whether James ought to have been killed was and is, by contrast, deeply disputed—Hall’s family pleaded that their mercy should spare him, and the state government acted against their wishes. Also disputed is the matter of how, exactly, the Alabama Department of Corrections took James’s life. Or it was in my mind, at least, until I saw what they had done to him, engraved in his skin.

A clinician of 27 years, Joel Zivot worked mainly in intensive-care units and operating rooms before investigating the disappearance of sodium thiopental (an erstwhile anesthetic recruited into lethal-injection cocktails) from the American market circa 2010, due to capital punishment. Zivot’s curiosity about the vanishing of a good drug eventually led him to research lethal-injection protocols, at which point he became a vocal critic of the death penalty’s use of medical means for lethal ends. 

Then there was the matter of locating an independent pathologist willing to take on the case, and finding the money to pay them. I suggested that Zivot reach out to Reprieve, a nonprofit civil-rights organization made up of lawyers, advocates, and investigators who defend the rights of people facing extreme abuses. Maya Foa, an executive director at Reprieve USdirector, agreed that an independent autopsy ought to happen—quickly.

“Lethal injection was developed to mask the very torture it inflicts,” she explained over text message, “and when a prisoner is executed in secret, the only person who can tell the world what really happened is dead. We’ve seen time and again states suppressing or delaying autopsy results following executions that appear to have gone disastrously wrong. Autopsies help tell the story that the body leaves behind.” Reprieve agreed to fund the autopsy through its newly launched Forensic Justice Initiative. 

And while the array of viscera and the accordion-style slicing of organs was appalling in its bloody gratuitousness—James had been, according to Datnow, a generally healthy man, prior to his execution—it was the story his flesh told about his lengthy and painful death that lent the scene its awful vertigo. In a little green storefront funeral parlor in Birmingham lay the visual record of everything the government can do to you, provided that you, like James in his final hours, have no counsel present, no wealth to your name, and no contact with the outside world.

James, it appeared, had suffered a long death. The state seems to have attempted to insert IV catheters into each of his hands just above the knuckles, resulting in broad smears of violet bruising. Then it looked as though the execution team had tried again, forcing needles into each of his wrists, with the same bleeding beneath the skin and the same indigo mottling around the puncture wounds. On the inside of James’s left arm, another puncture site, another pool of deep bruising, and then, a scant distance above, a strange, jagged incision, at James’s inner elbow. The laceration met another cut at an obtuse angle. That longer, narrower slice was part of a parallel pair, which matched a fainter, shallower set of parallel cuts. Underneath the mutilated portion of James’s arm was what appeared to be yet another puncture—a noticeable crimson pinprick in the center of a radiating blue-green bruise. Other, less clear marks littered his arm as well.

Further, the DOC’s own admission that it cannot confirm James’s consciousness during the procedure raises an obvious question: Why? James had been alone in DOC custody for the past three hours, presumably undergoing repeated, torturous, abortive efforts to gain lethal access to one of his veins. If something had happened to James during that period that affected his consciousness, only DOC staff wouldknow, and the agency’s complete failure to account for the last hours of James’s life or the awful suffering inflicted upon him before his death is ghastly, the sort of catastrophic, pseudo-medicinal brutality of our recent past that mainly flourishes behind closed doors.

As recently as 2018, Alabama was forced to halt the execution of Doyle Hamm after execution staff punctured his body at least 11 times in his ankles, legs, and groin, apparently even piercing his bladder over a three-hour period. Hamm’s attorney, Bernard Harcourt, was there that evening, demanding an explanation for the long delay and preparing a legal offensive for the morning. Hamm’s case has since become emblematic of the grotesque reality of lethal injection, compared with its putatively sterile, professional public-facing aesthetics. Lethal injections largely happen, quite literally, behind a curtain; what observers do see looks vaguely surgical; what they don’t looks like a war crime.

Read the full story in The Atlantic.