Federal Court Orders Alabama to Release Execution Protocol
In a victory for the media and advocates of open government, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled on March 18, 2019 that Alabama must disclose key portions of its highly secretive lethal-injection execution protocol to the public. The Associated Press, the Montgomery Advertiser, and Alabama Media Group had sued for access to the protocol, which came under intense scrutiny in the wake of Alabama’s failed attempt to execute Doyle Lee Hamm (pictured) in February 2018.
Hamm, who has terminal cancer, challenged Alabama’s execution protocol. He argued that his veins had been compromised by his illness and executing him by lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The courts permitted the execution to proceed after Alabama said it would not attempt to insert an IV-line in Hamm’s arms or upper extremities. On February 22, 2018, executioners tried and failed for two-and-one-half hours to set an intravenous execution line. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeffrey Dunn called off the execution but told the media, “I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol and claimed the execution had been halted only because the late court rulings in the case did not leave corrections personnel sufficient time to execute Hamm before his death warrant would have expired. Hamm filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit seeking to prevent Alabama from attempting to execute him a second time. As part of that suit, he filed a doctor’s report—the only public document describing the circumstances of the execution attempt—that indicated execution personnel had unsuccessfully inserted IV needles more than 10 times into Hamm’s feet, legs, and right groin, causing bleeding in his groin, and likely puncturing his bladder, causing blood in his urine. Shortly thereafter, Hamm and the state reached a confidential settlement in which Alabama agreed not to seek another execution date, the court records of the case would be sealed, Hamm would dismiss his lawsuit, and Hamm and his lawyers would not disclose any additional information about the case. In the aftermath, the three media outlets filed a motion to gain access to the protocol and execution records. A federal district court ruled in their favor in May 2018.
Alabama appealed that ruling, arguing that the lethal-injection protocol had never been formally filed with a lower court, and therefore was not a court record subject to public access. The appeals court rejected that argument, with Judge Charles Wilson writing: “Alabama’s lethal injection protocol may not have been formally filed under the rushed timeline of Hamm’s approaching execution, but the protocol constitutes a judicial record subject to the common law right of access because it was submitted to the district court to resolve disputed substantive motions in the litigation, was discussed and analyzed by all parties in evidentiary hearings and arguments, and was unambiguously integral to the court’s resolution of the substantive motions in Hamm’s as-applied challenge to the protocol.” The decision also addressed the importance of transparency to the public, saying “Judicial records provide grounds upon which a court relies in deciding cases, and thus the public has a valid interest in accessing these records to ensure the continued integrity and transparency of our governmental and judicial offices.”
Alabama’s execution secrecy has been at the core of several other execution controversies. In December 2016, execution witnesses reported that Ronald Smith clenched his fists and gasped repeatedly for nearly fifteen minutes. After the execution, Dunn told the public only that the state had “followed [its] protocol.” State officials later refused to provide any documentation about the execution. In February 2019, late disclosure of its secret protocol provision mandating that a Christian chaplain—and no other religious adviser—be present in the execution chamber led to the controversial execution of Muslim prisoner Domineque Ray without affording him access to an imam at the time of his execution.
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Texas Executes Robert Jennings in Nation’s First Execution of 2019
Texas executed Robert Jennings (pictured) on January 30, 2019 for the 1988 murder of Houston police officer Elston Howard, amid questions as to his eligibility for capital punishment and the constitutionality of his death sentence. Jennings was convicted under a sentencing procedure that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down shortly before his trial in 1989 because it did not adequately allow jurors to consider evidence supporting a sentence less than death. The jury instructions given in his case to redress that error were also later declared unconstitutional, and 25 Texas death-row prisoners had their death sentences overturned as a result. However, Jennings’s court-appointed trial and appeal lawyers failed to raise the issue in Texas state court and the Texas federal courts refused to consider the issue on the grounds that the state court lawyers had procedurally defaulted the claim. The U.S. Supreme Court later changed federal habeas corpus procedures to permit review if ineffective state-court representation caused the default. But when Jennings’s federal lawyers attempted to raise the issue again, the Texas federal appeals court ruled on January 28 that its prior decision had not been based on procedural default and that it had already rejected the claim. Without comment, the Supreme Court issued an order on January 30 declining to hear Jennings’s case, and he was executed.
In challenging Jennings’s death sentence, his current lawyers also argued that both Jennings’s trial lawyer and his previous appellate attorney provided inadequate representation. Jennings’s trial attorney was defending two death-penalty cases at the same time and did not investigate significant mitigating evidence that included Jennings’s history of brain damage from a car crash and an injury with a baseball bat, an IQ of 65, and intellectual and adaptive deficits associated with his low IQ. Trial counsel also failed to present readily available evidence of Jennings’s impoverished, abusive, and neglectful upbringing: he was born as the result of a rape, and his mother frequently told him she did not want him. His original appeal lawyers also failed to raise these issues. Edward Mallett, one of Jennings’s current lawyers, said, “There has not been an adequate presentation of his circumstances including mental illness and mental limitations.”
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes took the unusual step earlier in January of asking the state to consider supporting clemency for Jennings, citing the 30-year delay between the crime and the scheduled execution. Jennings's attorneys argued in his clemency petition that the state had granted clemency last year to a white death-row prisoner with fewer mitigating circumstances. "Denying a commutation truly will demonstrate that race, class, and privilege matter in determining who is executed in Texas," attorney Randy Schaffer wrote. "This would send a terrible message to the world."
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