Alabama Prisoners End Execution Lawsuit, State Will Drop Lethal Injection in Favor of Nitrogen Gas

Alabama will not execute eight death-row prisoners by means of the problematic lethal-injection protocol they have been challenging, but will instead carry out the executions using lethal gas. In a Joint Motion to Dismiss the prisoners' federal litigation over the state's execution protocol, filed on July 10, 2018, the parties agreed that the lawsuit had been rendered moot by the state's passage of legislation authorizing execution by nitrogen gas and the prisoners' election to die by nitrogen hypoxia. Alabama's lethal-injection process uses the controversial sedative midazolam, which has been implicated in numerous executions across the country that have been described as "botched." In October 2017, witnesses to Alabama's 35-minute execution of Torrey McNabb reportedly "expressed repeated concerns to each other that he was still conscious during the lethal injection." Alabama federal defender Christine Freeman, the director of the Alabama Post-Conviction Relief Project, testified on July 10 in separate litigation over Tennessee's lethal-injection process that she had witnessed McNabb grimacing and raising his arm up twenty minutes into the execution, well after the midazolam was supposed to have rendered him unconscious. Witnesses also reported that Alabama prisoner Ronald Smith heaved, coughed, clenched his left fist, and opened one eye during one 13-minute period of his 34-minute execution in December 2016. After Alabama added nitrogen gas as an option for carrying out the death penalty, the prisoners had a June 30 deadline to select gas as the method of their execution. In a nitrogen hypoxia execution, the prisoner breathes pure nitrogen, which displaces oxygen in the bloodstream, suffocating them. Experts characterized the prisoners' choice as preferring the unknown risks of execution by nitrogen gas to the known risks of execution by lethal injection. Nitrogen gas has never been used as a method of execution in the United States, but has been approved as an option by three states—Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Of the three states, only Alabama leaves the choice of execution method to the prisoner. Mississippi and Oklahoma allow nitrogen executions only if lethal injection is held unconstitutional or is "otherwise unavailable," although Oklahoma has indicated that it is developing a lethal gas protocol to replace lethal injection. According to the federal defender's office representing the Alabama prisoners, their clients in the case, "and anyone else who elected the new method, cannot now be executed by lethal injection." Alabama still must develop a nitrogen-hypoxia protocol before it can carry out any executions using that method, and the prisoners have not waived their right to challenge that protocol. Federal public defender John Palombi, who represents the prisoners, said "While the best way to reduce the risks of botched executions would be to abolish the death penalty, if the death penalty does exist, it must be carried out in a constitutional manner with the respect and dignity that is required of such a solemn event." Alabama's lethal-injection protocol is the most secretive in the nation. Palombi encouraged the state to make the nitrogen hypoxia protocol public "so that the people of the state of Alabama know what is being done in their name."

(Ivana Hrynkiw, Alabama death row inmates elect alternate method of execution, drop lethal injection suit, AL.com, July 10, 2018; 8 Alabama Inmates Ask for Execution by Nitrogen Gas, Associated Press, July 10, 2018; Adam Tamburin, Execution witnesses: Condemned writhed, grimaced when lethal drugs entered their bodies, The Tennessean, July 11, 2018.) See Lethal Injection and Methods of Execution.