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Supreme Court allows Alabama to execute inmate after overturning lower court pause

Despite the high court’s green light, the lethal injection was postponed after trouble accessing the inmate's veins.

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a divided ruling late Thursday night, the Supreme Court said Alabama could move forward with the execution of Alan Eugene Miller despite a pending legal battle over his method of execution. 

The 5-4 ruling throws out a lower court ruling pausing Miller’s execution. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett, and Ketanji Brown Jackson would have allowed the injunction to stay in place. 

Miller was convicted of a 1999 workplace rampage where he killed his colleagues Lee Holdbrooks, Christopher Yancy, and Terry Jarvis for starting rumors about him. A jury found him guilty of capital murder and the trial court sentenced him to death. Miller’s conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court both rejected appeals to hear the case. 

A district court blocked Miller’s scheduled execution unless the state was able to provide Miller’s preferred method, nitrogen hypoxia. Alabama does not currently offer nitrogen hypoxia executions — which force inmates to breathe only nitrogen, depriving them of oxygen and killing the inmate by suffocation. While three states have authorized executions by nitrogen hypoxia, none have actually used the method. 

In 2018, Alabama enacted a law that allowed inmates to elect nitrogen hypoxia as a method of execution. Miller claims he submitted a form to elect nitrogen hypoxia over lethal injection, however, Alabama has no record of this request. Miller said if the state were to ignore his execution preference over a misplaced form, the state would be violating his 14th Amendment rights. 

U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. granted Miller a preliminary injunction on Tuesday finding that it was likely he had submitted a form even if the state did not have a record of it. Inmates submit this paperwork by putting documents through a slot in their cell doors for a worker to collect. The 11th Circuit declined the state’s request to vacate the injunction, forcing Alabama to make a last-minute appeal to the justices. 

“Over two decades have passed since Miller executed three defenseless Alabamians for their purported involvement in office rumors,” Alabama Solicitor General Edmund G. LaCour Jr. wrote in the state's emergency application. “The State of Alabama lawfully scheduled Miller’s execution for tonight. Further delaying Miller’s sentence would ‘countenance ‘last-minute’ claims relied on to forestall an execution,’ and eviscerate both the State’s and the victims’ ‘important interest in the timely enforcement of [Miller’s] sentence.’ 

Alabama claims the district court’s ruling was based on speculative theories.

“‘[T]he question of [Miller’s] capital punishment belongs to the people [of Alabama] and their representatives,’” LaCour wrote. “This Court should return it to them.” 

Although a thin majority of the justices agreed to let the state move using lethal injection, Miller’s execution was halted after officials were unable to access a vein and worried they would not be able to complete his execution by midnight. Alabama recently faced accusations of the botched execution of Joe Nathan James after struggling to find a vein for more than three hours. 

“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,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. 

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