ATMORE, Ala. (WIAT) – For the men of Alabama’s death row, it was almost Thanksgiving.
They spoke from Holman Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison in the southern part of the state where many of their neighbors, one by one, have been executed. The condemned men – all members of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty – reflected on a rare concession from a state that has, for decades, fought for their deaths.
On Monday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced a moratorium on executions in the Heart of Dixie until a “top-to-bottom” review of the execution process is completed by the state’s department of corrections. Ivey’s announcement came after three botched execution attempts – the lethal injection of Joe Nathan James, which led to his death, and the attempted lethal injections of Alan Miller and Kenny Smith. Both Miller and Smith survived the state’s attempts to kill them.
Two days after Ivey’s announcement, a day before Thanksgiving, several men on death row said the moratorium on executions is a bittersweet victory: one that came too late to save many of their loved ones. But the pause provides an opportunity, they said, for state officials to bend toward justice. It’s a slim hope, they realize, but one they were unsure would ever even come. For that, at least, they’re thankful.
The men of Project Hope said they’re still processing.
The men, who spoke on the condition that their words not be individually attributed, are still processing the moratorium – a glimmer of hope in a sea of despair. But they’re also still processing the trauma that led to Gov. Ivey’s surprise announcement – what they characterize as the inhumane treatment of families of both those on death row and victims during Alabama’s secretive execution process.
Every Alabamian, one member said, should know what happened to Joe Nathan James, Alan Eugene Miller, and Kenneth Eugene Smith.
“You can’t really lump them together and treat them as one thing,” he said. “These were independent traumas not just for them but for all of us here.”
Joe Nathan James
“What they did with Joe James – it was unconscionable,” he said.
Against the wishes of the victim’s family, Joe Nathan James was executed by the State of Alabama in July. During James’ execution, he appeared unconscious, not responding in any way when asked for his final words, though prison officials denied James was sedated.
The lethal injection also came after an unexplained delay of about three hours. The Alabama Department of Corrections’ so-called “execution team” had experienced significant difficulty accessing James’ veins, officials said in a brief statement a day later.
A photo of James’ body taken after his death shows large cuts on the man’s arms.
“And we don’t have the full story because he didn’t survive,” one condemned man said.
Alan Eugene Miller
Then, there was Alan Miller.
“It is difficult to overstate the mental – and eventually physical – anguish that Mr. Miller experienced on the night of September 22 into the early morning hour of September 23,” Miller’s lawyers wrote in a legal filing days after the state had failed to kill their client.
Miller said he knew it was time for his execution to proceed when he heard the prison guards turn off the football game that had been playing on TV.
“It’s time,” a correctional officer told him.
By 10:15 p.m., Miller said he was strapped down to the gurney inside Alabama’s execution chamber, his arms stretched out in crucifix.
Two men in scrubs eventually entered the room and began attempts to access Miller’s veins, he said. One of the men began slapping Miller’s skin. Miller asked if the men were doctors, he recalled, but no one responded. One of them took out a pocket flashlight in an apparent attempt to assist in locating an accessible vein, according to Miller. The flashlight wasn’t helping, so a correctional officer offered his cell phone light.
“Mr. Miller could feel his veins being pushed around inside his body by needles, which caused him great pain and fear,” his lawyers later wrote.
Eventually, Miller said the men moved from the pit of his right elbow to his right hand, puncturing him with a needle repeatedly. Still, Miller said, they were unsuccessful. They moved to the left hand. Then to the left arm. Then to the left foot. Then to the right.
Soon, the two men in scrubs split up, Miller said. One man punctured Miller’s left arm, the other his right. Another man in navy-colored scrubs then walked into the execution chamber.
After inspecting each failed puncture site, the man slapped Miller’s neck. Miller recoiled. His worst fears, he said, were coming to pass.
A knock on the window of the execution chamber halted the men’s continued attempts to access Miller’s veins. Alabama had run out of time. The death warrant permitting Miller’s execution would soon expire.
An officer lifted the execution gurney into a vertical position, Miller still strapped down, his arms outstretched. Blood dripped from his wounds. Alan Miller still believed he would die.
He would survive.
Kenneth Eugene Smith
Finally, just a week before Thanksgiving, there was Kenneth Smith. He’d known about what happened to Joe Nathan James and Alan Eugene Miller, and he’d argued in federal court that attempting to access his veins again and again would violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A federal appeals court ruled that the legal challenge should move forward, but the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the appeals courts’ stay of Smith’s execution around 10:24 p.m.
Alabama would have only limited time to carry out Smith’s death sentence.
It wouldn’t be able to do so. Smith, like those who came before him, had been strapped down while unnamed representatives of the state poked and prodded his body. At 11:21, after accessing only one of the two veins necessary for the lethal injection to move forward, Alabama abandoned an attempt to execute one of its citizens for the second time in a row.
Kenny Smith, like Alan Miller, was a survivor.
“They were our friends”
On Wednesday, less than a week since Alabama’s failed attempt to execute Kenny Smith, and a day before Thanksgiving, members of Project Hope said what happened to Smith and Miller was inhumane.
“It’s ruthless and barbaric,” one member said. “There’s no place in our society for this kind of stuff.”
For the men on death row, the trauma they’ve had to experience secondhand are traumas inflicted on individuals they’ve come to know intimately over decades.
One member remembered playing basketball with Joe James. Another considered Kenny Smith his spiritual brother – the two had attended church services together inside Holman.
“We’re still processing the trauma from months ago,” he said. “And you know, we’ve already been mistreated – some of us for 30 years. When you lock somebody up like that, they’re going to be stunted – emotionally, intellectually – all of that. I’m chief among them. I feel it.”
Another member said that what happened to each condemned man has left those on the row “emotionally distraught.”
“They were our friends,” he said.
Healing, though, can be a near impossibility when those on death row are surrounded by officials who participated in the executions and attempted executions of those they love:
“You have the same officers that have botched these executions – the same ones that’s on the death squad – walk around us every day, smiling in our faces. It’s emotional. It’s overwhelming.”
He said that in the days since Kenny Smith became a survivor, he’s changed. Men on the row would approach Smith and ask about what happened, he said.
“I could see the bags under his eyes from him not getting sleep, waking up in cold sweats,” he said. “When you see brothers in the same situation go through what they’ve gone through, it’s horrible. It gives us nightmares.”
For the men on Alabama’s death row, the announcement of a moratorium on executions in the state is welcomed, but it comes as a bittersweet victory.
“It’s bittersweet because we lost a lot of guys before it happened,” a Project Hope member said. “But I’m happy for guys that was about to face the same the same situation.”
“It’s a good and a bad thing,” another member explained. “There were all the guys that went before it happened that could have been spared and saved. But it’s a good thing moving forward for guys in a similar situation. So it’s kind of a mixed feeling.”
Many of the men on death row are skeptical of the moratorium and the “top-to-bottom” review process announced by Gov. Ivey.
“The Alabama Department of Corrections cannot be allowed to investigate itself,” the members said. “There has to be an independent, impartial panel of experts to not only review what is going wrong but to pull back the curtain to provide transparency for every step in the process.”
“ADOC has at every turn said that everything is fine – everything went according to plan,” one member said. “The same people who have been lying this entire time – not just to us but to the media and in court – we can’t let them investigate themselves.”
The men on death row aren’t alone in that view. Advocacy organizations like the Equal Justice Initiative and nonpartisan groups like the Death Penalty Information Center have similarly argued that ADOC should not be trusted with its own review of the process it uses to lethally inject the state’s citizens.
In any case, the men said, they believe that issues at every stage of the death penalty process should be part of the review. Does the way prosecutors choose which crimes warrant the death penalty violate the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection? Should a man be executed when a jury recommended he be sentenced to life in prison, not death? Are those carrying out Alabama’s lethal injection even medically qualified? If not, why not? If so, what has led to the state’s failures to carry out the sentences it has chosen to impose?
The members of Project Hope said that they, too, should be asked for their thoughts during the state’s review. Any review done without consulting individuals on death row – those most directly impacted by death penalty policies – is certainly not “top-to-bottom” in scope, they said.
“The moratorium is a great opportunity to do what we set out to do from the start – educate people about what really goes on in capital cases so that they can see the light – that the death penalty should be abolished,” one member explained.
An “illegitimate” institution
Often, executions in Alabama take place after the explicit approval of one body, from which there is no appeal – the U.S. Supreme Court.
The members of Project Hope said that in years past they’d felt that while local and regional courts may err, those on death row would at least get a fair shake from an impartial body when their case reached the Supreme Court of the United States. Those days, they said, are over.
“We feel like we have no protection,” one condemned prisoner said. “The United States Supreme Court is the last court in the land. It’s supposed to be a protector of rights above all else. But now we feel it’s been politicized. It’s corrupt. They vote the way these conservative states want them to vote.”
The Supreme Court, he said, should intervene when Alabama chooses to violate its citizens’ rights, particularly when those violations mean the difference between life and death.
“We can’t understand for the life of us why this court has just allowed Alabama to do the things they do,” he said.
A particularly troubling issue with the Supreme Court, the members of Alabama’s death row said, is the body’s unwillingness to explain its reasons for allowing executions to move forward.
“Opinions lay the foundation for others to know what they did wrong or what should be done next,” he said.
He believes that may be one reason the court has chosen, particularly in recent years, to issue fewer opinions in cases on what’s become known as the court’s “shadow docket.”
“When they write opinions and dissents, it can tell lawyers what they should’ve done,” he said. “It can give a blueprint for others to follow.”
When the court doesn’t provide written reasons for its decisions, one man on death row said, it limits condemned individuals’ access to justice.
“They are not giving opinions because they know this,” he said. “They are tired of death penalty cases. They don’t want to hear death penalty cases.”
It’s not that the men of Alabama’s death row aren’t thankful for the execution moratorium issued earlier this week. They certainly are. But their gratefulness is tempered by the reality of their experiences inside Alabama’s Holman prison. It’s tempered, too, by their memory of the men, gone already, who aren’t here to give thanks.
Derrick Mason was one of those men.
In 2009, he wrote about Thanksgiving in Alabama death row’s newsletter, On Wings of Hope.
When he was young, he wrote, Thanksgiving had been all about food, family, and even more food. But as the years on death row passed him by, Thanksgiving began to evolve for Mason.
“Being in a place such as this, I am thankful to have made it another year,” he wrote. “I’m thankful for the love of family and friends that so many in my situation don’t enjoy. I’m thankful for the love that I have from supporters and workers such as Esther Brown, a beautiful human being. I’m thankful for the friendships that I share with my brothers in Project Hope. Being thankful is a beautiful thing, for it wards off selfishness.”
Mason closed his Thanksgiving message with a request – that the men on death row think of victims’ families.
“At this time, we also want to allow our thoughts to consider those victim’s families who will be missing a loved one at the Thanksgiving table this year,” he wrote. “My thoughts are that God would bring blessing on their homes.”
Alabama executed Derrick Mason less than two years later, on September 22, 2011.
It was almost Thanksgiving.