Alabama’s Recent Botched Executions and Execution Attempts
Between 2018 and 2022, Alabama had one botched execution and three failed execution attempts.
On November 17, 2022, the date of Kenny Smith’s scheduled execution, Alabama prison officials entered the execution chamber and began repeatedly jabbing Mr. Smith’s arms and hands with needles.
Mr. Smith told them that they were sticking the needles in his muscle, which was causing pain. Unable to find a vein, the officials then tilted Mr. Smith in an inverse crucifixion position while strapped to the gurney and left him there for several minutes.
A person of unknown medical credentials then started repeatedly stabbing Mr. Smith’s collarbone area with a large needle in an attempt to begin a central line IV in his subclavian artery.
Throughout this process, Mr. Smith writhed in agony. At some point before midnight, Mr. Smith’s execution was called off, and he returned to his cell.
Alabama scheduled Alan Miller’s execution for September 22, 2022, at 6 pm. At 9:20 pm, the Attorney General instructed officials at Holman State Prison to begin the execution. Media, family members, and attorneys expected to be transported to the death chamber to witness the execution.
But that did not happen. Instead, Mr. Miller was strapped to a gurney in a stress position with his arms outstretched and over his head while three men poked, prodded, and punctured his arms, hands, and feet for nearly two hours, resulting in what he described as “excruciating” pain.
The execution gurney was then lifted to an upright position so that Mr. Miller was left hanging vertically in a crucifixion position—with his chest and outstretched arms strapped to the gurney—for 20 minutes while blood leaked from his wounds. No witnesses or attorneys were present.
Then just before midnight, an Alabama official told Mr. Miller that his execution had been “postponed,” and he was taken to the medical unit where he was offered no medical assistance for his pain.
On July 28, 2022, Joe James was scheduled to be executed at 6 pm. No witnesses, attorneys, or reporters were allowed to be present during the prison staff’s hours-long attempt to place an IV into Mr. James’ body.
The results of Mr. James’s private autopsy, however, revealed that officials punctured Mr. James with a needle numerous times in his wrists, hands, elbow, and right foot. The autopsy also revealed jagged lacerations on Mr. James’s arm in an apparent “cutdown”—a procedure in which an incision is made with a scalpel directly into the skin in an attempt to find a vein. As a result, Mr. James’s skin had multiple incisions and abrasions, as well as bruises and lacerations showing he struggled against the straps tying him down.
Only at 9:02 pm—more than three hours after the scheduled start of Mr. James’ execution—were witnesses permitted to enter the execution chamber.
Alabama’s execution protocol guarantees defendants the opportunity to make a final statement before being forcibly sedated, and Mr. James had planned on doing so. Yet by the time witnesses were permitted to enter, Mr. James was already unresponsive, and his eyes were closed.
Execution officials nonetheless read Mr. James his death warrant and asked him whether he had any final words, putting a microphone to his lips. Mr. James, who was visibly unconscious, said nothing.
Officials then proceeded with Mr. James’s execution, and he was declared dead at 9:27 pm.
Mr. James’s three-and-a-half hour execution was possibly the longest lethal injection execution in American history. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm has not provided a reason for the lengthy delay, but later stated that whether it “takes a few minutes or a few hours, that’s what we do.”
On February 22, 2018, Alabama was forced to call off its execution of Doyle Hamm because prison staff could not set an IV line after two and a half hours.
Prior to the scheduled execution, Alabama officials were well aware that Mr. Hamm had advanced lymphatic and cranial cancer and likely had no accessible veins for a lethal injection.
A federal district court stayed Mr. Hamm’s execution, but a federal appellate court vacated that stay and ordered an expedited medical evaluation of Mr. Hamm that concluded he had accessible veins in his “lower extremities.”
The State had never attempted to carry out a lethal injection by securing an IV line to the person’s leg. Yet when the U.S. Supreme Court denied Mr. Hamm’s request for an emergency stay of execution at 8:40 pm, Alabama tried anyway.
Mr. Hamm’s execution began at 9 pm, and for nearly three hours execution officials were unable to secure an IV line. Two officials flanked Mr. Hamm’s body, prodding for venous access on each of his legs. They punctured his legs and ankles multiple times before declaring out loud that they could not secure a line. Different execution officials then attempted to gain central access to Mr. Hamm’s veins, stabbing him in his groin half a dozen times and penetrating his femoral artery. This, too, failed, and a pool of blood began to accumulate around Mr. Hamm’s groin.
At 11:27 pm, Mr. Hamm’s execution was called off, though over the next few minutes the execution team continued to speculate about how they might gain access to Mr. Hamm’s veins. Later, Mr. Hamm urinated blood, indicating the executioners had also punctured his bladder or prostate.
When asked about the failed execution, then-Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told reporters, “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.”
Mr. Hamm died of cancer in 2021.