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Alabama inmate executed after Supreme Court erases 11th Circuit blockade

The injunction that the court vacated late Thursday was meant to give courts some time to sort out whether Matthew Reeves was deprived of choice as to how he would be executed. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Overturning two courts that had put the execution on ice, the Supreme Court handed Alabama a 5-4 ruling late Thursday night that would let it administer lethal injection on an inmate with intellectual disabilities. 

Matthew Reeves was put to death at Holman Prison later that evening for the robbery and murder of Willie Johnson in November 1996.

The majority offered no explanation for their decision, as is typical in orders on the emergency docket, but Justice Amy Coney Barrett said she would deny the application, putting her in league with Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor who joined a dissent by Justice Elena Kagan.

“Four judges on two courts have decided — after extensive record development, briefing, and argument — that Matthew Reeves’s execution should not proceed as scheduled tonight,” the Obama-appointed Kagan wrote. “The law demands that we give their conclusions deference.”

Citing the over 2,000 pages of records, seven hours of testimony and oral argument that resulted in a 37-page decision, Kagan said the justices should have respected the district court’s ruling. 

“This Court should have left the matter there, rather than enable Reeves’s execution by lethal injection to go forward,” Kagan wrote. “The Court has no warrant to reweigh the evidence offered below. And it has no other basis for reversing the detailed findings the District Court made to support the injunction. Nor is the Court’s action in any way necessary to enable Alabama to carry out its capital sentence.”

While Reeves challenged his conviction previously, this case did not have to do with preventing his execution but instead how the execution would be carried out. 

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a law in 2018 that would made nitrogen hypoxia — a method never before used in the U.S. — an available execution method. Death by nitrogen hypoxia would force inmates to breathe in pure nitrogen, depriving them of oxygen and causing asphyxiation. 

Inmates received envelopes after the law passed that they could mark to indicate their preference to be killed by nitrogen hypoxia instead of lethal injection. Reeves was among the inmates to receive an envelope, but he was unable to read it without assistance and such help never came. Court records show Reeves, 43, had the language competency of a 4 year old. 

Claiming he would have selected nitrogen hypoxia — which he believed to be less painful — over lethal injection if he had been given assistance in filling out his forms, Reeves sued the commissioner and prison warden in 2020. 

The District Court in turn blocked the execution from going forward while Reeves' claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act moved through the legal system. The 11th Circuit affirmed Wednesday but said the execution could still move forward if the facility used nitrogen hypoxia. 

Commissioner John Hamm of the Alabama Department of Corrections swiftly invited the high court to intervene, saying Reeves was unlikely to prevail on his ADA claims and that the district court mischaracterized the ADA program in use. He said Reeves was not excluded from or denied access to the form allowing him to elect nitrogen hypoxia. 

“Reeves received the form, but did not elect — perhaps because he was in the middle of litigating an Atkins claim and actively challenging lethal injection in his ongoing habeas litigation, and his counsel filed a responsive brief addressing that claim on the first day of the election period,” Steve Marshall, the Alabama attorney general, told the court. “A year-and-a-half later, he brought this ADA suit and claimed that he did not understand the election form and that he would have elected had he received an accommodation.” 

John Palombi, an attorney from the Federal Defenders for the Middle District of Alabama representing Reeves, said the commissioner was just rehashing their arguments from the district court that had already been decided. Palombi said the commissioner barely acknowledged the 11th Circuit's ruling and that the high court shouldn’t have gotten involved in the case. 

“In 2020, there were 11,852 non-employment related American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) cases filed in United States District Courts,” Palombi wrote in a response brief. “This was one of them … Unlike any of those other 11,851 cases, Applicants also went to their state supreme court and asked for an order to execute the plaintiff. The District Court granted the plaintiff a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo until he, like those other 11,851 plaintiffs, could have his claim heard on the merits at trial.” 

Records on the 1996 murder of which Reeves was convicted show he had plotted with three associates to make it look like their car had broken down, wait for a Good Samaritan to offer help and then rob them. After Johnson towed Reeves and his friends toward Selma and asked for $25 for the trouble, Reeves killed Johnson with a shotgun and fled, stealing $360 from the body. 

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