Early this morning, James Barber was executed by the State of Alabama. His execution came two hours after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his motion for a stay, 6-3, shortly before midnight.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that Alabama should not be permitted to execute Mr. Barber following three torturous failed executions in 2022, including two scheduled executions where condemned prisoners were returned to their cells after hours of poking, prodding, and excruciating anguish.
She and two other justices opined that Alabama should not be permitted to “experiment” on condemned prisoners with uncertain execution protocols that have not been adequately detailed.
State officials asserted that it took the IV team “three sticks” to access veins to achieve Mr. Barber’s execution. Some witnesses reported that he showed some discomfort and distress before he was pronounced dead at 1:56 am.
Prior to the execution, Mr. Barber prepared a final statement that he asked to be published. Here are his final words:
God is so good! My life was over. Someone whom I loved’s life was over. I was in jail with no bond, no chances left. At the edge of the Abyss. Everything gone in the wink of an eye. But… I opened a Bible. And God reached down, lifted me up in His hands and said, “Now, you are ready for me to use as an instrument for My glory.”!!!
I read and learned of Him. As I did, He brought light into the deepest darkness a man can find himself in. He brought peace where there was only chaos. He brought joy, where there was only despair. He brought wisdom to a fool. He brought life to one who was dead!
God is the creator of everything. He created a new thing in me. Gave me wisdom I never had and assured me of a permanent dwelling place in his presence! I’ve strived to show Him my love and utter awe at the great gift He gave by the way I’ve tried to live. At times, I know I’ve failed to do my best. But I made up my mind early on that mere words could not express my sorrow at what had occurred at my hands. And so I hoped that the way I lived my life would be a testimony to the family of Dorothy Epps and also my family, of the regret and shame I have for what I’ve done. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. That’s not for me to judge. But I also told my brother on the phone from the county jail that I was never going to become a convict. Said I wouldn’t cut my hair like one, conduct myself like one. I wanted, when I either walk out of prison or am carried out in a body bag, to be a better man than when I walked into prison.
I hope God finds my efforts worthy. I hope the Epps family will know I did the only thing that I thought could show my deep regret, and it helps them somehow. Please pray for the Epps family. I love them deeply. Pray for my family, for peace and strength.
May the God of all creation create a new thing for each of you and lead you into the greatest, most spiritual era of your lives.
Be instruments for His glory! I love you and thank you in Christ.
Mr. Barber Used as “Guinea Pig”
In a divided 2-1 ruling, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on July 19 upheld a lower court’s order allowing Alabama to execute James Barber by lethal injection despite its uninterrupted streak of executions involving “protracted, severely painful, and grisly efforts” to establish IV lines.
Instead of requiring Alabama to address the problems involving IV access that caused it to botch its last three executions, the federal appeals court paved the way for Alabama to use Mr. Barber as its “guinea pig,” Circuit Judge Jill Pryor wrote in dissent.
“After a three-month “review” of its procedures—conducted entirely internally, entirely outside the scope of any court’s or the public’s scrutiny, and without saying what went wrong or what it fixed as a result—ADOC swears it is ready to try again, with Mr. Barber as its guinea pig.”
James Barber asked the federal courts to block Alabama from executing him by lethal injection, citing the State’s failure to make any meaningful changes to its lethal injection procedure after the torturous multi-hour execution of Joe James in July 2022 and the botched attempts to execute Alan Miller and Kenneth Smith in September and November.
Lawyers for Mr. Barber wrote in court pleadings that Alabama is the only state in the U.S. to botch three executions in a row.
After the botched executions garnered national and international attention, Gov. Kay Ivey ordered a suspension of executions in the state and promised a “top-to-bottom” review of Alabama’s execution protocol.
But the only change to the protocol came in March, when the Alabama Supreme Court announced an unprecedented rule change granting the governor unrestricted discretion to set a “time frame” for carrying out executions.
Exercising her newly granted authority for the first time, Gov. Kay Ivey on May 30 directed the Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner to execute James Barber by lethal injection at any time between midnight on July 20 and 6 am on July 21.
ADOC scheduled the execution to begin at 6 pm on July 20, and in response to Mr. Barber’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the State said it would execute Mr. Barber using all new IV team members.
The federal district court judge found that replacing members of the IV team with new staff and giving prison staff six additional hours to carry out the execution was sufficient to disrupt the State’s pattern of botched executions.
Judge Pryor rejected the district court’s “finding that changes in IV team personnel and amendments to the procedural rule giving ADOC extra time to complete executions will stop this pattern without any evidence of what caused the past problems or how these changes will address those specific causes” and pointed out that ADOC “has refused to answer discovery designed to answer these very questions.”
“Three botched executions in a row are three too many,” Judge Pryor wrote. “Each time, ADOC has insisted that the courts should trust it to get it right, only to fail again.”
“Mr. Barber has raised a serious and substantial Eighth Amendment claim that the pattern will continue to repeat itself,” Judge Pryor concluded. She would stay his execution “so that the State may not moot his claims before ever having to answer for its extraordinary and systemic failures.”
More About the Case
James Barber was convicted of capital murder in Madison County in the 2001 killing of Dorothy Epps.
Mr. Barber’s memory of what happened that night is hazy—he was suffering from substance addiction and, as The Atlantic reported, he had smoked crack cocaine, drunk at least a case of beer, and taken prescription pain pills before arriving at Ms. Epps’s home.
He said in a 2012 court hearing that he remembered being inside the house and picking up a hammer. After that, as The Atlantic put it, “Barber narrated his immediate horror at what he had done, how he had recoiled from his own image in a mirror moments after the crime. He said he didn’t know why he had struck Epps. It had just happened.”
Prosecutors were unable to persuade all 12 jurors that death was the appropriate punishment for Mr. Barber. In nearly every other state that has the death penalty, the jury’s nonunanimous verdict would have required that Mr. Barber be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
Ms. Epps’s granddaughter, Sarah Gregory, opposes the execution. She reached out to Mr. Barber to extend her forgiveness, she told The Atlantic, and was deeply moved by his response.
“Sarah, sorry could never come close to what is in my heart & soul,” he wrote. “The self loathing, shame, shock and utter disbelief at what took place at my hand almost overcame me. If not for God’s grace I would be gone.”
“You have freed me,” Ms. Gregory replied in a letter shared with The Atlantic. “Receiving your letter was the final piece of freedom. The weight was lifted when I forgave you in my heart, but your response back brought me indescribable freedom and release. I have no anger…zero. I feel as if a thousand pounds were lifted from my soul. I cannot thank you enough. I am sorry that it took me so long.”
Today, Ms. Gregory said, she regularly talks on the phone with Mr. Barber, about her life, her family, and the Lord.
She feels despair about Mr. Barber’s upcoming execution. “I don’t want it to happen,” she told The Atlantic. “I don’t…I don’t want to see it done.”