On July 29, 2022, Joe Nathan Jones, Jr. was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. in the death chamber at a prison in southern Alabama. Media witnesses said that before the death pronouncement was made, Jones lay motionless on the death gurney with his eyes closed. He did not respond when asked if he had any final words.
Jones’ execution was scheduled at 6:00 p.m. at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. Associated Press reported that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his stay request at 5:24 p.m. Media witnesses were placed in a prison van and escorted to the death chamber at 6:24 p.m. The witnesses waited without explanation until the execution began at 9:04 p.m. At that point, when witnesses were allowed to see Jones, he appeared unconscious through some form of sedation.
Prison authorities would later say the execution delay was caused by prison staff being unable to locate a vein sufficient to accommodate the lethal injection needle. In politically correct spin, prison officials “botched” the execution because they were not sufficiently trained or qualified to follow the protocols in a lethal injection execution.
Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice has reported that state prison officials have refused to release details of its lethal injection protocols despite repeated requests by media outlets and citizens.
That the Joe Jones execution was botched is not surprising. Alabama botched four executions in 2016 and 2017.
Botched executions are becoming more prevalent in lethal injection executions in the U.S.
On May 19, 2021, Texas prison officials botched the execution of Quintin Jones in the state’s death chamber at Huntsville. As reported by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) on May 10, 2022, an ensuing investigation by the ACLU found that Texas prison officials are “woefully unprepared to carry out an execution” under the state’s lethal injection protocols.
Joe Leach (R-Plano), co-chair of the Texas House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus called the entire events surrounding Quintin Jones’ execution “an unfathomable, colossal screw-up.”
Not to be outdone by its death penalty-loving cohorts, Alabama and Texas, Oklahoma managed to botch three straight lethal injection executions in 2020 and 2021. These botched executions came after a six-year pause following the infamous 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett. Prison officials had six years to study, memorize, and even conduct practice sessions of the state’s lethal injection protocols, but that was not enough to teach them how to perform a lethal injection execution.
And worse yet,
On June 6, 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Friot, Senior Judge in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, followed the 2015 lead opinion written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Scalia. In that death penalty case, SCOTUS held the three-drug protocol used in Oklahoma executions did not violate the cruel and unseal punishment provisions of the Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The three-drug protocol before the Court involved drugs that are supposed to serve these purposes: 1) a sedative that renders the prisoner unconscious, so they do not feel the severe pain caused by the other two drugs administered afterward; 2) a paralytic drug that effectively freezes the muscles to prevent any involuntary body movements caused by pain; and 3) a drug that literally suffocates the beat out of the heart.
Obviously, the sedative is the most critical drug in the protocol.
Oklahoma, the first state to adopt the three-drug execution method known as “lethal injection,” initially used the powerful sedative sodium thiopental until 2010, when the state substituted pentobarbital. The manufacturer of sodium thiopental ultimately acceded to world opinion that the drug should not be used in American executions.
And, then in 2014, Oklahoma dropped the more effective but less available pentobarbital in favor of the non-FDA approved and far less effective sedative midazolam.
In April of that year, Oklahoma tested midazolam on Gary Lockett in what turned out to be one of the most inhumane, botched executions in American history. Although officials stopped the execution, it took 43 minutes for Lockett to die of a heart attack after the three-drug protocol was administered. Lockett’s final words were “My body is on fire.”
Nineteen months later, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said the botched execution was nothing more than an “innocent misadventure” and an “isolated mishap.”
Like other states that use midazolam in their lethal injection execution protocol, Oklahoma increased the dosage of the sedative to 500 milligrams after Lockett’s execution. The state then carried out its first execution under this new protocol in January 2015—some nine months after the “innocent misadventure” in the Lockett execution. And the state managed to botch that execution as well by using the wrong “heart-stopping” drug in the three-drug protocol that killed Charles Warner. Unexplainably, Warner was executed using potassium acetate, the same drug that was delivered for Richard Glossip’s aborted execution on September 30.
Federal lawsuits were then filed challenging the use of midazolam in Oklahoma. Those lawsuits effectively imposed a six-year moratorium on executions in the state.
After securing federal court clearance, Oklahoma resumed its death machine last October with the execution of 60-year-old John Grant. Once again, the Oklahoma death machine botched the execution, with Grant convulsing and vomiting as soon as the 500 milligrams of midazolam were injected into his system.
Six weeks after Grant’s execution, Oklahoma executed Bigler Stouffer. His execution did not experience the obvious problems that occurred in John Grant’s execution.
However, the autopsies conducted on both Grant and Stouffer took center stage at hearings before Judge Friot in February and March as attorneys for Oklahoma’s death row inmate once again tried to block the use of midazolam in the state’s execution protocol.
The DPIC reported that attorneys for the 28 condemned inmates presented overwhelming expert evidence that both Grant and Stouffer suffered severe pain during their executions, as evidenced by the “pulmonary edema” in their autopsies. The men had “excess fluid in their lungs, giving additional credence to death-row prisoners’ claims that Oklahoma’s lethal-injection process will subject them to an unconstitutionally torturous death.”
Rejecting this credible expert evidence that midazolam is not the kind of sedative that renders a person insensate to pain, Judge Friot ruled on June 6, 2022 that:
“The evidence persuades the court, and not by a small margin, that even though Midazolam is not the drug of choice for maintaining deep anesthesia, it can be relied upon, as used in the Oklahoma protocol, to render the inmate insensate to pain for the few minutes required to complete the execution.”
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor responded to Judge Friot’s ruling by seeking execution dates over the next two years for 25 of the 28 who challenged the use of midazolam in Friot’s Court.
According to the DPIC, Oklahoma has five executions scheduled for the remainder of 2022, Texas has three, and Alabama has one. How many of these executions will be botched is anyone’s guess, but given the execution history of these three states, some definitely will be.
But these will be just “isolated mishaps” for Attorney General O’Connor, who wants to maintain Oklahoma’s number one ranking as executing more people per capita than any other state in the nation.
The death penalty is an abomination for a nation whose criminal legal system was designed to oppress African Americans and continues implementing criminal legal penalties which disproportionately impact the poor, marginalized, and other racial minorities. The criminal justice system is systemically flawed and imperfect in its administration of justice. Wrongful convictions occur at an astonishing rate.
The death penalty should be abolished.