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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
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11th Circuit blocks execution of disabled Alabama death row inmate

On the eve of his scheduled execution, an appeals panel blocked the lethal injection of an Alabama man on the grounds that prison officials did not accommodate his intellectual disability when offering him an alternative execution method.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) — Blocking the execution of an Alabama inmate scheduled for Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit ruled late Wednesday that he was not properly given the opportunity to decide how he will die. 

Matthew Reeves, a death row inmate convicted of murdering a stranger in 1996, was set to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Central time on Thursday.

But on Wednesday, an 11th Circuit panel upheld a district court decision that blocked the execution from going forward. 

Reeves claims the Alabama Department of Corrections failed to accommodate his intellectual disability, depriving him of his right to choose the method of his execution.

U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker granted Reeves a preliminary injunction last year that prevented the Alabama Department of Corrections from “executing him by any method other than nitrogen hypoxia before his [Americans With Disabilities Act] claim can be decided on its merits.”

The Atlanta-based appeals court rejected the state’s request to lift the injunction. 

 “Assuming Mr. Reeves will succeed on his ADA claim, he was unable to use the form due to the defendants’ failure to provide him a reasonable accommodation,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan, who penned Wednesday's 29-page opinion

In late June 2018, Captain Jeff Emberton handed envelopes to more than 100 death row inmates detained in the Holman Correctional Facility in southwestern Escambia County. Each envelope contained a morbid opportunity. 

An Alabama last passed earlier that month granted death row inmates a chance to elect that their execution be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia – in which the condemned inmate breathes in pure nitrogen, depriving them of oxygen and causing asphyxiation – rather than the state’s default execution method of lethal injection. 

Reeves had received an envelope and the election form inside, which was created by federal public defenders. But he says he was unable to read and understand the form without assistance.

A speech pathologist retained by Reeves testified that his “language competency was that of someone between the ages of 4 and 10," according to court records.

In the lawsuit Reeves filed in January 2020 against the commissioner and the prison warden, the inmate says that he would have chosen the nitrogen hypoxia option if he had understood the form. 

In an execution by nitrogen hypoxia, a death row prisoner breathes pure nitrogen and becomes asphyxiated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Oklahoma and Mississippi have both authorized the use of nitrogen gas in executions.

Nitrogen hypoxia has never been used to carry out a death sentence, despite Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi having authorized the method.

Reeves believes this new and untested method of execution would be significantly less painful, and asked the state to let him review the election form so he can opt out of the lethal injection.

The state claimed that it does not have the authority to reopen the 30-day time period allowed for inmates to make the decision.

But Jordan, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote in Wednesday's ruling that “the defendants have admitted that they have the authority to alter, amend, or make exceptions to the procedures governing the execution of death-sentenced prisoners in Alabama.”

Jordan was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, who was appointed by Bill Clinton and U.S. Circuit Judge Lisa Branch, a Donald Trump nominee. 

The office of Alabama’s attorney general promptly appealed the 11th Circuit’s decision, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the lethal injection to proceed. 

If the high court reverses the 11th Circuit, Reeves will be executed on Thursday night as planned.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, Regional

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