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.

(Court: Alabama can’t keep its lethal injection method secret, Associated Press, March 19, 2019; Kayla Goggin, Alabama Must Disclose Lethal-Injection Protocol, Courthouse News Service, March 18, 2019.) Read the Eleventh Circuit’s decision. See Lethal Injection and Secrecy.