The sister of death-row prisoner Joe Nathan James Jr. has called for an investigation into his botched execution following a statement by an Alabama Department of Correction’s spokesperson that ADOC could not confirm that James was fully conscious when he was executed.

James was executed on July 28, 2022 following an initially unexplained three-hour delay during which ADOC execution personnel repeatedly failed to establish an intravenous line for the lethal injection. When reporters were finally admitted to the observation room and ADOC officials opened the curtain to the execution chamber, James was motionless and non-responsive on the gurney with his eyes shut. James did not respond in any way when an execution team member asked him whether he had any last statement.

“James’ eyes were not open at the beginning of the execution, and he appeared motionless, save for his breathing,” Lee Hedgepeth, a media witness from Birmingham television station CBS42 wrote.

In a written statement to the Montgomery Advertiser, James’ sister, Yvette Craig said “Only the ADOC employees know what occurred during those three hours” in which the execution was delayed. “At the very least,” she wrote, ADOC Commissioner John Hamm “should have let the execution warrant expire and revisit the method of execution.” The media’s observations of James’ condition when the curtain was opened “warrants an investigation of Commissioner John Hamm, Governor Kay Ivey, and Attorney General Steve Marshall’s actions leading up to the execution of my brother,” she said.

James’ execution was carried out over the objection of the victims’ family, who had unsuccessfully asked Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall to intervene to stop it from taking place. After the execution, Hamm deflected questions about the delay, saying only that the execution team complied with the state’s execution protocol and that the time taken was necessary to ensure that the court’s order to execute James was “carried out correctly.”

The next day, ADOC public information officer Kelly Betts obliquely suggested the delay was caused by the execution team’s inability to set an IV line. In a statement issued on July 29, she again asserted that “ADOC’s execution team strictly followed the established protocol” in an effort to avoid having to carry out a cut-down procedure to place an IV in James’ groin, and that “with adequate time, intravenous access was established.”

Later in the day, Betts conceded that the execution team had experienced difficulties in placing the IV line. She continued to provide evasive answers to media inquiries about James’ physical and mental condition when the curtain opened, responding to Montgomery Advertiser reporter Evan Mealins’ question about whether James was fully conscious at the time of the execution by stating that he had not been sedated. When asked again if James had been fully conscious, Betts then replied, “I cannot confirm that.”

While the unexplained delay was taking place, prison officials subjected two female reporters to clothing examinations, deeming the skirt a reporter from had worn when covering prior executions “too short” to gain admission to the prison. After the reporter found other clothing to wear, Betts further delayed media entry into the facility by then telling her that she could not wear open-toed shoes. Betts also subjected a veteran female Associated Press reporter to a clothing inspection.

Reporters were then taken to the prison in an ADOC transport van, but left in the van for nearly 2 1/2 hours without any explanation for this additional delay. The media witnesses were ultimately seated in the execution viewing room at 8:57 p.m. and the curtain to the execution chamber was raised at 9:02 p.m.

Multiple reporters noted that James’ eyes were closed and he lay motionless on the gurney. He was non-responsive when an execution team member asked him if he had a final statement. At 9:04 officials began administering the execution drugs through an IV that was already in place in James’ left arm when the curtain was raised. Reporters indicated that “James blinked and his eyes fluttered briefly” after the drugs were injected. He was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m.

In an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser, Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham said, “If the department does not know whether a prisoner is conscious or unconscious at the time of the execution, then they are incompetent to carry an execution out. If the department does know but will not say, then they cannot be trusted.” Dunham said that instances such as ADOC’s “verbal gymnastics and refusal to be forthcoming … undermine public confidence in the trustworthiness of the states to carry out the death penalty fairly and reliably.”

James was first sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of Faith Hill, whom he had previously dated. As his scheduled execution date approached, Hill’s family members tried in vain to stop the execution.

“We hoped the state wouldn’t take a life simply because a life was taken and we have forgiven Mr. Joe Nathan James Jr. for his atrocities toward our family,” the family wrote in a statement released through Alabama State Representative Juandalynn Givan. “Although we knew this day would come, we hoped to have our voices heard through this process. … We pray that God allows us to find healing after today and that one day our criminal justice system will listen to the cries of families like ours even if it goes against what the state wishes. Our voices matter and so does the life of Mr. Joe Nathan James, Jr.”

Craig accused Ivey and Marshall of willfully ignoring the Halls’ wishes. “Of course, they unilaterally decided, against the wishes of the victim’s family, to execute the second Black man during this election year,” she wrote. “They didn’t care about the wishes of the victim’s family because the victim’s family are not their constituents.”

James’ execution is the third Alabama has botched since December 2016 and the second in which Alabama execution personnel had significant problems setting an IV line. On December 8, 2016, Ronald “Bert” Smith heaved, gasped and coughed while struggling for breath for 13 minutes after the lethal drugs were administered. Death was pronounced 34 minutes after the execution began. In February 2018, executioners unsuccessfully attempted for two-and-a-half hours to establish intravenous access to execute Doyle Ray Hamm. Then-ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn ultimately called off the execution saying prison personnel did not have “sufficient time” to find a suitable vein before the death warrant expired. At a news conference immediately thereafter, Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol, and said “I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.”