Despite serious questions about its death penalty system, the State of Alabama executed 83-year-old Walter Moody tonight.
Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme continues to come under criticism, and recent executions have highlighted several especially troubling issues.
In January 2016, the United States Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty statute, holding in Hurst v. Florida that a jury, not a judge, must find each fact necessary to impose a death sentence. Florida, Alabama, and Delaware were the only states in the country that allowed judges to override jury recommendations for life sentences and instead impose death.
In response to Hurst, Florida changed its sentencing law and abolished judicial override, and the Delaware Supreme Court struck down that state’s death penalty statute after finding it violates the Sixth Amendment.
Instead of changing its capital sentencing scheme like Florida and Delaware, Alabama instead executed Ronald Smith on December 8, 2016, even though his jury rejected the death penalty and decided he should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Mr. Smith was the 11th person put to death in Alabama despite a jury verdict rejecting the death penalty.
Four months after it executed Ronald Smith, Alabama changed its statute to abolish judge override in future cases. It still has not addressed questions about the more than 30 people currently on death row whose juries voted for life, including Vernon Madison, whom the state tried to execute in January even though his jury sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. The United States Supreme Court stayed Mr. Madison’s execution, blocking Alabama’s attempt to execute a 67-year-old man suffering from dementia and serious mental health problems following multiple strokes. Mr. Madison is legally blind, incontinent, cannot walk without a walker, speaks with slurred speech, and has no memory of the crime or the circumstances that brought him to death row. The Court is now reviewing his case, which raises the question of whether he is incompetent to be executed because he has no rational understanding of the crime for which he was convicted.
In February, Alabama scheduled the execution of 61-year-old Doyle Hamm, who is suffering from lymphatic cancer. Mr. Hamm advised the State that it would not be able to carry out a lethal injection because his medical condition has made his veins inaccessible, but the State asserted it could execute him using veins in his legs, which it had never done before. On February 22, the execution team repeatedly punctured Mr. Hamm’s legs and then tried– and failed — to put a central line in through his groin, subjecting him to hours of torturous pain before calling off the execution shortly before midnight. In other states that have botched executions, state leaders halted all executions and created independent commissions to investigate, but in Alabama, the corrections commissioner refused to admit the botched execution was a problem and the governor did nothing.
Instead, the State of Alabama went forward with another execution less than a month later. On March 15, the state executed Michael Eggers, after a judge allowed him to fire his attorneys and abandon his appeals despite strong evidence that he was severely mentally ill.
One week later, on March 22, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation making Alabama the third state in the country to allow executions by nitrogen gas, a method that has never been used before anywhere in the world and is not even allowed for euthanizing animals.
Despite a clear national trend against death sentences and executions, Alabama nonetheless executed Walter Moody for the bombing death of a federal judge in 1989.