On Thursday, October 19, the state of Alabama executed Torrey Twayne McNabb by lethal injection, using a secret execution protocol that has repeatedly resulted in botched procedures.
The execution did not go well. After reassuring his family that he was not afraid, Mr. McNabb was injected with midazolam, a valium-like sedative, and executioners twice conducted a “consciousness check,” brushing Mr. McNabb’s eyelid, calling his name, and pinching his shoulder. Mr. McNabb responded in a purposeful-looking way to both checks, moving his hand, raising his arm, and grimacing, but the execution proceeded anyway.
Afterwards, Commissioner Jefferson S. Dunn told reporters executioners had followed the protocol “as it is written” – an unverifiable claim, since Alabama has refused to release details of its protocol, despite multiple public records requests and current litigation by a local minister. Dunn said he was “confident” that McNabb was “more than unconscious” when he moved, characterizing his movements as “involuntary” and saying they are common occurrences at executions.
Indeed they are. Ronald Bert Smith, Jr. heaved and coughed for 13 minutes of his December 2016 execution. And purposeful-looking movement was observed during the January 2016 execution of Christopher Brooks, who reportedly opened one eye, and the June 2017 execution of Robert Melson, whose hands and arms reportedly quivered and shook against his restraints.
These facts alone should be enough to persuade Gov. Kay Ivey and legislators that Alabama’s death penalty process is broken. But they are not the only reasons. In 2015, judges ordered the release of three men – Anthony Ray Hinton, Montez Spradley, and William Ziegler – from Alabama’s death row due to evidence of innocence or prosecutorial misconduct, errors, and abuses egregious enough to warrant reversal. Including Hinton, eight Alabama death row prisoners have been exonerated in the modern death penalty era. That many of them spent decades behind bars should give pause to supporters of attempts, including 2017’s so-called “Fair Justice Act,” to shorten the time between sentencing and execution.
As far back as 2006, the American Bar Association’s Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Team, consisting of eight distinguished Alabama attorneys, made a variety of specific recommendations for reform. Recognizing that Alabama’s death penalty process ensured neither accuracy nor fairness, these Alabama experts called for a temporary moratorium on executions while the state worked to address them. So far, only one of these, calling for an end to the practice of allowing elected judges to override a jury’s recommendation of life without parole in favor of a death sentence, has been enacted.
Before Alabama even considers moving forward with a new execution, it must implement the Assessment Team’s recommendations and empanel a new commission to review emerging issues, including the demonstrably problematic execution protocol. In devising a new commission, Alabama lawmakers could look to the example of Oklahoma, which implemented a moratorium and empaneled a commission to review its capital punishment system in 2016, after a disastrously botched execution, and revelations of shocking ineptitude and deception by top Department of Corrections officials brought international condemnation and undermined public confidence. Following a year-long investigation, the commission unanimously recommended an extension on the moratorium “until significant reforms are accomplished.”
Alabama’s system suffers from many of the same flaws as Oklahoma’s, including an execution protocol that has resulted in several botched executions; inadequate safeguards against the execution of the innocent; and an over-burdened and under-resourced defense bar.
While Alabamians may disagree on whether we should have a death penalty, we should all agree that if Alabama has a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. Currently it fails this basic test. It is unconscionable that Alabama continues to execute individuals without addressing the fundamental problems with our death penalty process.