- Alabama murderer enjoys unexpected reprieve after execution called off
- Prison officials were unable to find Alan Miller’s veins to kill him before midnight
- The execution took place less than three hours after Supreme Court decision
- Execution had been delayed by injunction over the method of lethal injection
An Alabama man who was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection is still alive after officials could not find his vein before a midnight deadline to execute him.
Alan Miller, 57, who was convicted in 1999 of killing three people in a workplace rampage, is now back in his cell after prison officials made the decision at about 11:30pm.
Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said the state halted the scheduled execution of Miller late Thursday after they determined they could not get the lethal injection underway before a midnight deadline for the death warrant.
‘Due to time constraints resulting from the lateness of the court proceedings, the execution was called off once it was determined the condemned inmate’s veins could not be accessed in accordance with our protocol before the expiration of the death warrant,’ Hamm said.
The execution team at the Holman Correctional Facility began trying to establish intravenous access, but he did not know for how long. Miller had explained previously how he was afraid of needles.
Mere hours before, Miller had tucked into a huge last meal of meatloaf, chuckwagon steak, American cheese, French fries, apple sauce, instant potatoes, macaroni, apples, and an orange drink.
The confusion was compounded by a divided US Supreme Court decision which had cleared the way for the execution to begin less than three hours earlier.
Supreme Court Justices in a 5-4 decision had lifted an injunction – issued by a federal judge and left in place by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – that had blocked Miller’s execution from going forward.
Prison officials were only told to proceed at 9.20pm, and family and lawyers along with members of the media were instructed to go to the facility’s execution chamber.
Miller’s attorneys said the state lost the paperwork requesting his execution be carried out using nitrogen hypoxia, a method legally available to him but never before used in the United States.
When Alabama approved nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method in 2018, state law gave inmates a brief window to designate it as their execution method.
Miller testified that he turned in paperwork four years ago selecting nitrogen hypoxia as his execution method, putting the documents in a slot in his cell door at the Holman Correctional Facility for a prison worker to collect.
Prison officials said they had no record of receiving the form and that Miller was just looking for ways to delay his execution.
He had explained that he preferred this method of execution because it reminded him of the nitrous oxide gas used at dentist offices, and that seemed better than lethal injection.
‘I did not want to be stabbed with a needle,’ Miller said.
US District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr issued a preliminary injunction on Tuesday blocking the state from killing Miller by any means other than nitrogen hypoxia after finding it was ‘substantially likely’ that Miller ‘submitted a timely election form even though the State says that it does not have any physical record of a form.’
Miller, a delivery truck driver, was sentenced to death after he killed co-workers Lee Holdbrooks and Scott Yancy at a business in suburban Birmingham, according to prosecutors.
He then drove off to shoot former supervisor Terry Jarvis at a business where Miller had previously worked. Each man was shot multiple times and Miller was captured after a highway chase.
Trial testimony indicated Miller believed the men were spreading rumors about him, including that he was gay.
A psychiatrist hired by the defense found Miller suffered from severe mental illness but also said Miller’s condition wasn’t bad enough to use as a basis for an insanity defense under state law.
An Alabama jury took 20 minutes to convict, in a 10 to 2 vote, in July 2000 and decided that put Miller should be put to death. Two appeals of the verdict were denied.
‘In Alabama, we are committed to law and order and upholding justice. Despite the circumstances that led to the cancellation of this execution, nothing will change the fact that a jury heard the evidence of this case and made a decision.
‘It does not change the fact that Mr. Miller never disputed his crimes. And it does not change the fact that three families still grieve,’ Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said in a statement.
‘We all know full well that Michael Holdbrooks, Terry Lee Jarvis and Christopher Scott Yancey did not choose to die by bullets to the chest.
‘Tonight, my prayers are with the victims’ families and loved ones as they are forced to continue reliving the pain of their loss,’ Ivey said.
Although Alabama has authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, the state has never executed anyone using the method and Alabama’s prison system has not finalized procedures for using it to carry out a death sentence.
Nitrogen hypoxia is a proposed execution method in which death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thereby depriving him or her of the oxygen needed to maintain bodily functions.
It is authorized as an execution method in three states but no state has attempted to put an inmate to death by the untested method. Alabama officials told the judge they are working to finalize the protocol.
Many states have struggled to buy execution drugs in recent years after US and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their products in lethal injections. That has led some to seek alternate methods.
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.
In another case, death row inmate Doyle Hamm received a stay of execution in February 2018 after his execution was ‘botched’ due to several failed attempts to insert a needle into his veins. The execution was called off as midnight approached.
Hamm reached a confidential settlement with the state of Alabama not to try to execute him again and he died of cancer-related complications in 2021.
And in October last year, John Marion Grant vomited, swore repeatedly and convulsed ‘two dozen times’ as an Oklahoma execution team delivered a controversial three-drug lethal injection.
Death by Nitrogen hypoxia
Alabama switched from the electric chair to lethal injection after 2002, and in 2018 legislators approved the use of another method, nitrogen hypoxia, amid defense challenges to injections and shortages of chemicals needed for the the injection procedure.
When Alabama approved nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative execution method, state law gave inmates a brief window to designate it as their execution method.
Death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thereby depriving them of oxygen.
Lawmakers theorized that death by nitrogen hypoxia could be a simpler and more humane execution method, but critics have likened the untested method to human experimentation.
Hypoxia occurs when a person lacks an adequate supply of oxygen.
Nitrogen hypoxia during an execution would be induced by having the offender breathing a gas mixture of pure nitrogen.
The nitrogen could either be supplied by using a medical-grade oxygen tent around the head or a facemask similar to those used by firefighters.
Offenders would lose consciousness about fifteen seconds after the switch was made from oxygen to nitrogen.
Approximately thirty seconds later, they would stop producing brain waves, and the heart would stop beating about two to three minutes after that.
Nitrogen hypoxia would also likely not produce the gruesome deaths that resulted from cyanide gas executions.
The condemned person would feel slightly intoxicated before losing consciousness and ultimately dying.
No state has used nitrogen hypoxia to carry out an execution, and no state has developed a protocol for its use, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Alabama has not yet developed a system for using nitrogen to carry out the executions, but is expected to have protocols in place before the end of 2022.