Alabama halts executions pending review; Expert says investigation ‘must be independent’

Alabama is holding back on executing more death row inmates after the governor ordered an investigation into the state’s lethal injection protocol. But Governor Kay Ivey’s announcement that the Alabama Department of Corrections will be investigating itself was in stark contrast to how and why other states are dealing with their crises with a governor-enacted moratorium.

Ivey on Monday morning announced the halt after two failed execution attempts and ordered a “top to bottom” review of the state’s execution process. “Working with Alabama Department of Justice Commissioner John Hamm, Gov. Ivey is asking the Department of Justice to conduct a thorough review of the state’s execution process and ensure that the state can successfully deliver justice in the future,” said a press release from Ivey’s office.

She continued, “For the sake of the victims and their families, we have to do this right. I don’t accept for a second the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the Corrections people or anyone in law enforcement for that matter. I believe there are legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system at play here,” Ivey said in the statement.

“I will provide the department with all the necessary support and resources to ensure those who have committed the most heinous crimes in our society receive their due punishment. I simply cannot in good conscience bring another victim’s family to Holman seeking justice and closure until I am confident that we can carry out the final sentence.”

READ ALSO: Gov. Kay Ivey Orders Moratorium On Executions In Alabama

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, governors in California, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Oregon have imposed moratoriums on executions. The federal government also last year imposed a moratorium on executions pending a review.

When asked who would conduct the review at ADOC, a spokesman said those details were not yet available.

There are currently 166 inmates on Alabama’s death row.

There are 27 states with the death penalty, including the federal government and the US military.

The announcement comes after several notable lethal injection issues in Alabama this year. First there were questions about the July execution of Joe Nathan James Jr. and whether he was sedated before the deadly drugs were administered. In September, the state failed to execute Alan Eugene Miller after prison officials were unable to get an IV line for the lethal injection. In November, a similar situation happened to Kenneth Eugene Smith, and the execution was again called off just before midnight.

This is how the process has worked in other states that have a moratorium but still have the death penalty.

Investigations in Tennessee and the federal government

Earlier this year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced a moratorium similar to Alabama’s, but called for an independent investigation into the state’s execution record. Neither the governor nor the attorney general’s office predicted when executions would resume.

In a press release, Lee announced that the state would hire a former US attorney “to conduct a third-party review of Tennessee’s execution process after correctional officials failed to test execution drugs for bacterial endotoxins prior to (an) execution.” so the death penalty information center reported. Lee also said the state will not go ahead with the five remaining executions scheduled for 2022.

“I review every death penalty case and believe it is an appropriate punishment for heinous crimes,” Lee said in a press release. “However, the death penalty is an extremely serious matter, and I expect the Tennessee Department of Justice to leave no doubt that procedures are being properly followed.”

DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said the Alabama investigation must be conducted independently. “As Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee understood when he ordered an investigation into his state’s execution protocol violations, that investigation must be independent. The Alabama Department of Corrections has a history of denying and twisting the truth about its execution failures and cannot be trusted to meaningfully investigate its own incompetence and wrongdoing,” he said.

“Legal efforts aimed at ensuring ADOC executioners do not torture prisoners to death are not – and never have been – the cause of ADOC’s repeated failure to establish timely execution IV lines. Nor are they the cause of the evasive maneuvers, lack of transparency and repeated false statements made by ADOC to the media and the public.”

Meanwhile, the death penalty at the federal level is also being reviewed internally. That ban began in 2021, when US Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a moratorium on federal executions while a review of Justice Department policies and procedures was underway.

“Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including the arbitrariness of its use, the uneven impact it has on people of color, and the worrying number of exonerations in deaths and other serious cases,” Garland wrote in the candid letter.

The announcement comes after a series of changes at the federal agency, including a new protocol for administering lethal injections at the federal Bureau of Prisons using the drug pentobarbital. The investigation is led by the Deputy Attorney General.

California, Pennsylvania, Oregon: states that have stopped the death penalty without investigation

According to Oregon Live, Oregon has not executed anyone on death row in a quarter of a century. In 2011, then-Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber halted all executions in the state, saying, according to the DPIC, “I refuse to be part of this compromised and unjust system any longer; and will not allow any more executions while I am governor.”

The moratorium on executions differs from Alabama’s because it came after years without executions.

Upon taking office in 2015, Gov. Kate Brown maintained the state’s moratorium on executions, according to Oregon Live. Newly elected governor Tina Kotek has announced she would continue the ban if elected.

In 2019, Oregon Live reported that the state legislature passed legislation restricting the aggravated homicide statute and restricting the types of killings eligible for the death penalty. And in 2020, the state began dissolving its death row.

In 2015, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium and halted the execution process for prisoners sentenced to death. According to a statement on the government’s website, the moratorium was enacted “until the government receives and considers the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on the Death Penalty…”.

That report, issued in 2018, found that “it has not been possible to determine whether procedural safeguards are adequate to ensure that people with intellectual disabilities are not sentenced to death” and that the state’s execution of inmates is “a possibility” or indeed more innocent people could be convicted and executed.”

The report continued: “Because the serious alternative of life imprisonment without parole is available, the Policy Subcommittee concludes that an alternative to the death penalty exists that adequately safeguards public safety and takes into account other legitimate social and criminal interests.” “

The report also found “potential, practical problems” with the state’s current lethal injection protocol. The panel recommended that the killing injection protocol be published, used with statutory rights, and used “a suitable and effective drug selected by qualified expertise to be humanely performed and ethically administered.”

The state has only executed three prisoners since 1978, the last in 1999. Unlike Alabama, the state did not actively use the death penalty before the moratorium.

The incoming governor, Josh Shapiro, hasn’t announced whether he will keep the moratorium but told the Pennsylvania Capital star he will review “the legality of how” Wolf structured it. “But certainly I have a long track record of not pursuing the death penalty. And I think that approach would continue as governor,” he told the newspaper.

In a statement at the time of the announcement, Wolf said the state’s death penalty is “a flawed system that has proven to be an endless cycle of trials, ineffective, unjust and expensive.” Wolf said in a statement he wanted to prevent the execution of a wrongfully convicted man.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium in 2019. According to NPR, the action only suspended executions in the state while Newsom was in office. He also closed the state’s execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

“Our death penalty system has been a failure – in every way -” Newsom said in a statement. “It has provided no public safety benefit or deterrent value. It wasted billions of tax dollars. But most importantly, in the event of human error, the death penalty is absolute, irreversible, and irreparable.” In January 2022, Newsom announced that California’s death row would be dismantled within two years, according to DPIC.