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Alabama Pauses Executions After Numerous Prisoners Survive Attempts to Kill Them

Three executions were delayed this year after officials struggled to insert IVs into the incarcerated people’s veins.

Police officers gather to remove activists during an anti death penalty protest in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on January 17, 2017.

Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey has paused the use of lethal injections for executing people in the state, a move that comes after at least three individuals in recent years endured painful ordeals in which the state tried to kill them but they survived and were re-imprisoned.

Advocates for abolishing the death penalty say Ivey’s order is a positive step but doesn’t go far enough.

On Monday, Ivey ordered a “top to bottom” review of the system of capital punishment in Alabama following the fourth planned execution in the state since 2018 that had to be postponed due to officials’ inability to carry it out.

“For the sake of the victims and their families, we’ve got to get this right,” the governor said in a statement announcing the order.

But instead of expressing empathy for those facing the threat of execution, Ivey pinned the blame for the state’s actions on the incarcerated people, saying they were using “legal tactics” to “hijack” the system.

“I don’t buy for a second the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at Corrections or anyone in law enforcement, for that matter,” she said.

The governor’s order comes after a third person this year was subjected to an attempted execution that did not ultimately result in his death. In all three instances, and in the fourth from 2018, the incarcerated individuals were repeatedly poked with needles as officials charged with executing them struggled to find places to stick an IV needle into their arms, a process that can be incredibly agonizing.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, whose execution last week was delayed because officials couldn’t insert a necessary second IV needle, was the most recent person to endure a painful attempt at execution and then be returned to prison after his death warrant expired later that day. In September, Alan Eugene Miller underwent a similar experience after a needle couldn’t be inserted into his arm, either.

In 2018, officials struggled for hours to insert a needle into Doyle Lee Hamm, an incarcerated person in Alabama who was on death row before his death warrant expired. Hamm later died of natural causes in 2021.

Medical officials responsible for executing Joe Nathan James this past July were similarly unable to find a vein in his arm, but evidence suggests that instead of halting the state-sanctioned killing, his executioners instead sliced into areas of his arm that were “not in the anatomical vicinity of a known vein,” according to anesthesiologist Joel Zivot, who examined the injection site. This method is known as a “cutdown” and is particularly horrifying because officials were not sure whether or not James was conscious while it was happening.

Zivot could not tell if the cutdown included local anesthesia, “as slicing deep into the skin with a sharp surgical blade in an awake person without local anesthesia would be extremely painful,” he said this past summer.

There are many health reasons why it can be difficult to insert an IV needle into someone’s arms. Some people may have smaller veins due to age, while others are genetically predisposed to having such problems.

The inability to correctly place an IV in a person, called IV infiltration, can cause incredible pain, and in some instances, can result in a person developing blisters, burns, and necrotic (or dead) tissue. In extreme circumstances, a person may even require amputation.

Alabama state Rep. Chris England (D) said Ivey’s decision to pause the use of lethal injections should be viewed as an opportunity to move toward ending state-sanctioned executions altogether.

“Although I don’t believe that the state should be executing people, stopping executions to review the process is certainly a step in the right direction,” England said in a tweet. “Hopefully this will start a larger conversation about the death penalty in Alabama.”

Opponents of capital punishment spoke out on the need to abolish the procedure rather than find ways to somehow do executions “better.”

“The recent spate of disastrous lethal injection executions have shown that whatever the drug, whatever the protocol, condemned prisoners often spend their final hours in agonizing pain and distress,” said Maya Foa, director of Reprieve U.S., an anti-death penalty organization.

“Imagine being strapped on a lethal-injection gurney while your executioner searches for a vein, only to have time run out. This has happened repeatedly, only highlighting the utter cruelty of the death penalty,” Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter.

Some have noted that Alabama and other states carrying out executions across the U.S. have violated rights established in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids “cruel and unusual” punishments.

“The state’s incompetence at executing its prisoners in accordance with its own protocol has degenerated into a civil-rights crisis, evident in the scattered slices and punctures of three executions gone awry in a row,” noted The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig, who witnessed one of the attempted executions.

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