Speed Reads

Poison Picked and Rejected

Alabama delays execution after 5-4 Supreme Court rules it can continue

Alabama called off the execution of Alan Miller on Thursday night, hours after the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, allowed the death by lethal injection to proceed. 

U.S. District Judge Austin Huffaker Jr. stayed the execution on Tuesday, ruling Alabama had to comply with Miller's request to be put to death by nitrogen hypoxia, as legally allowed in Alabama and two other states, It's "substantially likely" Miller "submitted a timely election form even though the state says that it does not have any physical record of a form," he wrote. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his ruling, but the Supreme Court vacated the injunction without explanation. The ruling fell mostly along ideological lines, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett voting with the court's three liberal justices to uphold the stay.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm blamed "time constraints resulting from the lateness of the court proceedings" for the postponement of Miller's execution. The executioners were left with too little time to access Miller's veins before the death warrant expired at midnight, he explained. 

"The aborted execution came after the July execution of Joe Nathan James took more than three hours to get underway after the state had difficulties establishing an intravenous line, leading to accusations that the execution was botched," The Associated Press reports.

Miller, 57, was convicted of killing two coworkers and a supervisor in a 1999 rampage. His lawyers said the state lost paperwork Miller submitted to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia, a method Alabama approved in 2018 as lethal injection drug supplies dried up. The process, which has never been tried in the U.S., involves the inmate breathing only nitrogen, thus starving the body of needed oxygen. Alabama's prison system is still working to finalize its protocol.

"That the state is not yet prepared to execute anyone by nitrogen hypoxia does not mean it will harm the state or the public to honor Miller's timely election of nitrogen hypoxia," Judge Huffaker wrote. "By contrast, if an injunction does not issue, Miller will be irrevocably deprived of his choice in how he will die — a choice the Alabama Legislature bestowed upon him."