End The Death Penalty In the news

Alabama Hides the Horrors of Its Executions by Classifying Them as Homicides

In Alabama, a death by execution is classified as a homicide. At first glance, this might seem like an honest acknowledgement that capital punishment is state-sanctioned murder, but it is more likely a maneuver to hide the horrifying reality of capital punishment.

When journalists request autopsy records following an execution, the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences declares the case remains “under investigation” and refuses to release them until the investigation has concluded. How Alabama kills is a state secret.

The purpose of lethal injection has always been to obscure the awful truth of taking a human life. By administering a paralytic to stop prisoners from contorting or crying out as they suffer what Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor described as “the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake,” witnesses are spared the agony — and prevented from realizing the torture that is unfolding. Alabama’s recent execution of Joe James shows that states are finding even this false, sanitized theater a little too real.

Here’s what we know: The execution was scheduled to start at 6 pm. At 6:33 pm, media witnesses were locked in a prison van without their phones and told to wait. They waited. And just before 9 pm, they were led into the room overlooking the execution chamber, where they saw James, apparently unconscious, with his eyes closed. When the warden asked if he had any last words, James did not respond.

In the official account, the execution lasted 23 minutes, from 9:04 pm, when the first of the lethal drugs was administered, to 9:27 pm, when James was pronounced dead. In fact, officials spent the best part of three hours trying to establish intravenous access. Photos seen by The Atlantic show multiple puncture marks where he was stabbed with needles as well as deep cuts where his flesh was sliced in efforts to find a vein. Bruises show signs of struggle, and reports suggest officials forcibly sedated him.

The parallels with the attempted execution of Doyle Lee Hamm in 2018, also in Alabama, are striking. During that nearly three-hour ordeal, corrections staff pierced Hamm’s body a dozen times, puncturing his bladder and his femoral artery. Unlike James, he lived to tell the tale.

James’s execution appears to have taken longer than any recorded lethal injection execution carried out in the U.S. and may turn out to be the longest execution in U.S. history using any method, but it’s not an outlier. Setting an IV line is exceptionally difficult, even for a trained medical practitioner — something prison staff are not. Very often, it becomes a bloody spectacle. And even when it doesn’t, it’s still likely the prisoner died in agony, because lethal injection was designed to hide the very pain it causes.

Read Reprieve US Director Maya Foa’s full opinion piece in Truthout.