MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama’s string of problematic lethal injections, which worsened late Thursday when prison officials called off another execution over an IV line problem, is unprecedented nationally, a group that prosecutes the death penalty said Friday.
The incomplete execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith was the state’s second such case in the past two months, in which he failed to kill an inmate, and the third since 2018. The state completed an execution in July, but not until then after a delay of at least three hours caused in part by the same problem starting an IV set.
A head of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group with a large database of executions, said no state other than Alabama has had to halt an ongoing execution since 2017, when Ohio halted Alva Campbell’s lethal injection because workers it could. find no vein.
In Ohio in 2009, the only other lethal injection was stopped before an inmate died, according to Ngozi Ndulue, the Washington-based group’s deputy director.
“So Alabama has had more aborted lethal injections in recent years than the rest of the country combined,” she said.
Something clearly went wrong with the state’s execution process, Ndulue said.
“I think Alabama clearly needs to explain something, but also think about what’s going wrong with its execution process,” she said. “The question is whether Alabama will take this seriously.”
The Alabama Department of Justice denied that the cancellation was a reflection of problems. In a statement, it blamed the delayed court action for the cancellation because prison officials “had a short time frame to complete their protocol.”
Prison officials said they canceled Smith’s execution for the night after being unable to complete the lethal injection within the 100-minute window between courts clearing the way for it to begin and a midnight deadline when the death sentence was pronounced expired for that day. The US Supreme Court cleared the way for Smith’s execution when, at about 10:20 p.m., it overturned a stay granted by the US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals the night before. But the state decided about an hour later that the lethal injection would not take place that evening.
“We have no concerns about the state’s ability to conduct future lethal injection procedures,” the Alabama Department of Justice said in an emailed statement.
“The department will continue to review its processes, as it routinely does after each execution, to identify areas for improvement.” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey also blamed Smith’s last-minute appeals as the reason “justices are not being carried out could”.
US District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. on Friday granted a request by Smith’s attorneys to visit Smith and take photos of his body. He also ordered the state to keep notes and other materials related to what happened in the failed execution. Smith’s attorneys said they believe he may have been strapped to a stretcher for four hours, although his final appeals were pending.
“Mr. Smith undoubtedly has injuries from the execution attempt – and certainly physical evidence and testimonies that must be preserved – that can and should be photographed and/or filmed,” Smith’s attorneys wrote.
Smith, who was due to be executed in 1988 for the contract killing of a preacher’s wife, was returned to Holman Prison’s death row after surviving the attempt, a prison official said. His attorneys declined to comment Friday morning.
Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said prison staff spent about an hour trying to connect the two required IV lines to Smith, 57. Hamm said they set up one line but had been unsuccessful with a second line, which the state’s protocol requires as a backup. after trying several spots on Smith’s body.
Officers then tried a central line, which involves inserting a catheter into a large vein. “We didn’t have time to finish that, so we canceled the execution,” Hamm said.
The initial postponement came after Smith’s most recent appeal focused on IV line issues at the last two scheduled lethal injections in Alabama. Since the death sentence expired at midnight, the state must go back to court to request a new execution date.
Advocacy groups and defense attorneys said the ongoing troubles in Alabama highlighted the need for a moratorium on investigating how the state administers the death penalty.
“Once again, the state of Alabama has demonstrated its inability to carry out the current execution protocol without torture,” federal defense attorney John Palombi, who has represented many death row inmates in the state, said via email
Prosecutors said Smith was one of two men who were each paid $1,000 to kill Elizabeth Sennett on behalf of her husband, who was heavily in debt and wanted to collect insurance. The murder — and revelations about who was behind it — rocked the small north Alabama community where it happened in Colbert County, and inspired a song called “The Fireplace Poker” by southern rock group Drive-By Truckers.
John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted of murder, was executed in 2010.
Alabama has come under scrutiny for its problems with recent lethal injections. In ongoing litigation, inmate attorneys seek information about the qualifications of the execution team members responsible for connecting the lines. At a Thursday hearing in the Smith case, a federal judge asked the state how long it was too long to try to establish a line, noting that at least one state mandates an hour limit.
The July execution of Joe Nathan James Jr. took several hours to get underway due to problems setting up an IV line, leading the Reprieve US Forensic Justice Initiative, an anti-death penalty group, to claim that the execution had been botched.
In September, the state canceled the planned execution of Alan Miller over difficulties accessing his veins. Miller said in a court filing that prison staff jailed him with needles for more than an hour and at one point left him hanging vertically on a gurney before announcing they were stopping. Prison officials have claimed that the delays were due to the state following procedures carefully.
Alabama called off the execution of Doyle Hamm in 2018 over problems connecting the IV line. Hamm had damaged veins from lymphoma, hepatitis and a history of drug use, his attorney said. Hamm later died in prison of natural causes.
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