On February 24, just three months after halting executions in the wake of two failed execution attempts, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared the state was ready to resume putting people to death. The truncated, behind-closed-doors “review” conducted by the Alabama Department of Corrections contrasts sharply with Tennessee’s recent independent investigation into its execution procedures.
Gov. Ivey suspended executions on November 21 and ordered ADOC to conduct a “top-to-bottom review” of its execution protocol after ADOC’s torturous multi-hour execution of Joe James and its failed attempts to execute Alan Miller and Kenny Smith within the span of four months.
On Friday, ADOC Commissioner John Hamm sent the governor a two-page letter announcing the completion of the review. Mr. Hamm wrote that, after talking with ADOC staff, he had decided they are “as prepared as possible to resume carrying out executions.” Mr. Hamm provided little detail about what (if any) changes ADOC made to its execution protocol as a result of the review.
The lack of transparency, accountability, and integrity of Alabama’s “review” of its execution procedures is clear when compared to the transparent and meaningful approach taken by Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Lee paused executions last May to allow for a third-party investigation into “operational failures” in Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.
Alabama’s “review” falls short of Tennessee’s investigation in several ways:
- Tennessee’s investigation was independent—Gov. Lee appointed former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton to investigate Tennessee’s protocol. Alabama’s review was internal, conducted in-house by the very same ADOC officials responsible for the failed and botched executions.
- Tennessee’s investigation was comprehensive—investigators interviewed more than 25 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents during a six-month-long investigation. In Alabama, Mr. Hamm led a “review” of his own department that took half the time of Tennessee’s and provided no information about the scope of the review, how it was carried out, who was questioned or consulted, or even what documents were reviewed.
- Tennessee’s investigation was transparent—the investigation was detailed in a 178-page report that was released to the public in December. ADOC’s “review” produced no public report—Mr. Hamm merely sent a two-page letter to Gov. Ivey.
- Tennessee’s investigation revealed specific problems with the state’s execution protocol and its implementation, including a persistent failure to test execution drugs as required by the protocol, as well as deficiencies in staffing and training. Alabama did not identify any problems with its protocol or explain what went wrong in its last three scheduled executions.
- Tennessee’s investigation proposed specific remedies for the problems it identified, including changes to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol, hiring additional staff to ensure compliance with the protocol, and providing detailed guidance and training for execution teams. Alabama, in contrast, has not explained how it will prevent botched executions in the future. Mr. Hamm wrote that ADOC “decided to add to its pool of available medical personnel for executions,” but he does not explain how he plans to find them or what their role will be in future executions. And while Mr. Hamm told Gov. Ivey that ADOC “ordered and obtained new equipment that is now available for use in future executions,” he did not identify what equipment was acquired, why ADOC determined the equipment was necessary, or how it will be used in future executions.
- Tennessee’s investigation resulted in accountability—two top corrections officials were fired for failing to follow the execution protocol. In Alabama, no state official has been held accountable for the failed and botched executions.
In fact, the only specific change to Alabama’s execution procedures since November actually removes judicial oversight of the execution process. In January, the Alabama Supreme Court adopted an unprecedented new rule that allows the governor to schedule an execution “within a time frame,” rather than on a specific date. The state’s highest court abdicated its authority over the scheduling of executions and granted the governor broad, new, unrestricted discretion over when executions are carried out in the state.
Alabama is now the only state in the country that allows executions without an established time frame, giving state executioners unprecedented power.
In the absence of any other meaningful changes to Alabama’s execution protocol, the practical effect of this new rule is that ADOC staff could continuously attempt to execute condemned people like Alan Miller and Kenneth Smith for hours or days.
Alabama’s approach also contrasts with that of Arizona, where the governor and attorney general last month halted executions pending an independent review into the state’s execution protocols.
In appointing an independent commissioner to review and report their findings to the governor and attorney general, Gov. Katie Hobbs’s order recognizes that an internal review by state corrections officials would be inadequate to improve “the transparency, accountability, and safety of the execution process.”