Alabama’s execution of Joe Nathan James Jr last month may have taken longer than any other lethal injection in recorded American history, and no death penalty ever administered in the US may have taken quite as long, according to an analysis by a human rights organization.
An examination by Reprieve US of James’s execution estimates that it took Alabama officials between three and three-and-a-half hours to carry out the lethal injection, a duration that the organization argues violates constitutional protections against inhumane punishments.
“Subjecting a prisoner to three hours of pain and suffering is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment,” the director of Reprieve US, Maya Foa, said in a statement Sunday. “States cannot continue to pretend that the abhorrent practice of lethal injection is in any way humane.”
James Jr was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in the 1994 killing of 26-year-old Faith Hall. Hall had briefly dated James Jr before she rejected him and he shot her to death, investigators have said.
The daughters of Hall wanted James Jr to spend the rest of his life imprisoned but pleaded for him not to be executed. Nonetheless, Alabama officials pumped lethal injection drugs into James Jr the night of 28 July as his punishment for Hall’s murder.
James Jr was supposed to be put to death at 6pm that night, but it wasn’t until about 9pm that media witnesses were allowed to enter the execution chamber. Then, it wasn’t until 9.27pm that officials pronounced him dead.
State officials insisted in a statement that “there was nothing out of the ordinary” despite facing questions about the lengthy delay. But later, they modified their statement to say James Jr’s executioners had experienced trouble establishing the intravenous lines carrying the lethal drugs.
Citing evidence from James Jr’s autopsy as well as sources quoted in a recent report from the Atlantic on his death, Reprieve US maintains that it’s clear the lethal injection began long before the media witnesses were admitted into the execution chamber. The organization said James Jr’s execution team unsuccessfully tried for three hours or more to insert an IV line before attempting a cut-down procedure that may have caused the condemned man to struggle, leaving him with injuries on his hands and wrists.
Officials then reportedly sedated James Jr, which may have explained why he never opened his eyes or moved while on a gurney after the media witnesses were admitted into the execution chamber. He also never spoke when asked if he had any last words, Reprieve US’s analysis noted.
Foa, the Reprieve US director, argued that James essentially underwent two executions, saying: “First, [it was] a torturous procedure behind closed doors, then a theatrical performance for witnesses.”
The organization said it has reviewed more than 275 botched executions in the US – involving all methods – since 1890.
A handful of those cases – from the early 1900s – centered on prisoners who were presumed dead, found to be alive, and then executed a second time, with officials failing to record the time between the first execution attempt and the time of death.
However, for those executions with recorded times, none took longer to carry out than James Jr’s, according to Reprieve US’s analysis.
For the human rights group, the entire sequence of events called to mind Alabama’s botched 2018 execution of convicted murderer Doyle Lee Hamm. Officials spent two-and-a-half hours puncturing Hamm’s legs and groin in an unsuccessful attempt to begin pumping lethal drugs into him before calling off the execution as he bled on a gurney.
Hamm, 64, died last year of cancer.
James Jr demonstrates that Alabama officials have not learned any lessons from Hamm’s case.
“Instead of learning the lessons from Alabama’s failed attempt to execute Doyle Lee Hamm, Alabama officials appear to be using it as a template,” Foa said.
Referring to James Jr’s execution, she added: “This is the latest example of the extreme lengths states will be go to hide the brutal reality of lethal injection because they know the public would oppose it if they found out what was really going on.”
Alabama state prison officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday on Reveal US’s analysis of James Jr’s execution.