Alabama Hopes to Shift Method of Execution from Lethal Injection to Gas Chamber

A.W. Naves
Lethal injection unit at Holman Correction Facility (circa 2002)Photo byADOC

The Holman Correctional Facility (HCF) execution unit in charge of executing Alabama death row inmate Joe Nathan James Jr. had only one job and it didn’t go well. After multiple failed attempts to insert the needles that would carry a toxic cocktail that would end James’ life, the team opted to slice into his arm in search of a viable vein. After a three-hour delay, they finally ended the convicted murderer’s life on July 28, 2022.

James had received a death sentence for the 1994 murder of his former love interest, Faith Hall. According to court documents, James entered Hall’s Birmingham, Alabama, home by force on August 15, 1994. Once inside, he accused her of having been unfaithful and shot her multiple times. He was convicted by a jury in Jefferson County, Alabama, in 1996. They recommended the death penalty and the judge agreed. However, the conviction was overturned by an Alabama appeals court based on claims that the judge admitted certain police reports into the record in error. James was once again brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1999.

Despite the difficulties with this July execution, the state moved forward with the scheduled execution of HCF inmate Alan Eugene Miller on September 22, 2022. Once again, the execution unit had trouble locating two veins where they could place the necessary needles. Over the course of an hour, Miller was repeatedly pierced with needles and even left hanging vertically at one point. However, unlike the James execution, the execution unit was not eventually successful. Instead, the state placed a stay on Miller’s death until he can be executed by other means.

Miller is now back on death row awaiting execution for gunning down co-workers 32-year-old Lee Holdbrooks and 28-year-old Scott Yancy at his place of employment and then driving to his former employer’s location to kill his ex-supervisor, 39-year-old Terry Jarvis. Miller had worked as a truck driver for both businesses and was known to have frequent arguments with his co-workers over his belief that others were being given better routes.

Still, the State of Alabama was not yet willing to call it quits. Kenneth Eugene Smith remained scheduled to die by lethal injection on November 17, 2022. After multiple piercings with needles in an attempt to strike the appropriate veins, the execution team was forced to call off the execution and return Smith to death row.

Smith had been sentenced to death for his part in the 1988 murder-for-hire plot in which he and another man killed Elizabeth Sennett. Sennett’s husband, a Church of Christ minister in Sheffield, Alabama, had hired his tenant to murder his wife for $3,000 so that he could collect the insurance money to pay off his massive debts. The tenant gave Smith and another man $1,000 each to commit the brutal murder and stage it as a home invasion. The crime was featured on the TV series, American Monsters in an episode titled Take Me to the River in 2018.

Only after this third attempt was the State of Alabama willing to admit they had a problem. Four days after Smith’s botched execution, Governor Kay Ivey put a halt to all executions in the state while the situation could be investigated.

Now, the state is looking to abandon executing prisoners by lethal injection altogether. Legislation passed in 2018 would allow the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to take a page from the past where some states placed the condemned prisoner into a small gas chamber that could be filled with cyanide gas. This method of execution caused death due to the damage the gas inflicts on internal organs but took longer than was deemed humane. However, rather than using cyanide, the state wants to use nitrogen gas. As the nitrogen gas slowly depletes oxygen, hypoxia occurs, resulting in death.

This method of death by nitrogen-induced hypoxia was envisioned by Stuart Creque. In 1995, Creque authored an article in which he speculated that the death afforded by this type of execution would be easy and comfortable for the prisoner. His writings on the subject were published in the National Review. The Oklahoma state legislature agreed, passing a 2014 bill that allowed for this method of execution as an alternative to lethal injection. Mississippi passed a similar resolution in 2017 and Alabama did the same in 2018. Several other states have earlier lethal gas legislation in place that would also allow for this type of execution.

However, Alabama seems to be the first to look into actually putting a nitrogen gas chamber into place as a means of prisoner execution. While the investigation into the failings of their lethal injection is still in process, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has already issued a statement assuring the public that Alabama will resume executing prisoners as quickly as possible.

His announcement follows an episode in which Deputy Attorney General James Houts presented a prototype gas mask during a deposition with Alan Eugene Miller and asked if they would allow it to be placed on his face by prison officials for the purpose of execution. It was intended that Miller would be executed by nitrogen gas but when the time came, the state was not prepared to do so and opted to attempt the lethal injection that failed.

The display did shed some light on some of Alabama’s intended methodology. To use a mask such as the one presented, they would need to take numerous safety precautions for the execution team. Nitrogen is a dangerous gas that could expose more than just the prisoner to death if not utilized properly. It would still require the use of a confinement chamber to protect others but the delivery system would be more direct through the tubing entering the mask.

Other pitfalls to achieving this type of execution system also exist. Protests from religious organizations have already caused at least one firm hired to help streamline a safe delivery system to end a contract with ADOC. Industrial gas giant Airgas has also indicated that they have no desire to provide gas that would be used for human executions, stating that it isn’t consistent with the values they hold as a company.

For now, it would seem that Alabama is at a loss when it comes to executions. With protests, pushback from providers, and a shortage of suppliers willing to accommodate their nitrogen needs, the state’s push to become the first state to put this method of execution into place doesn’t seem as viable as they perhaps thought.

However, it doesn’t seem the state is ready to throw in the towel just yet. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Alabama has executed 70 prisoners since 1976. 170 inmates remain on death row awaiting execution and state officials have made it clear that they are determined to carry out their death sentences in one way or another.

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Freelance Writer. Author. Alabamian. I write about true crimes, unsolved cases, and macabre mysteries.

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