Pull Back The Curtains on Executions!!!
crossposted @ Patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jeffhood/pull-back-the-curtains-on-executions/
By Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood
On July 28, 2022 at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama Department of Corrections officials strapped Joe James, Jr. to a gurney and prepared him to be executed. Normally this should take minutes. For over three hours beyond his scheduled execution time, gathered reporters, witnesses and other interested parties waited and waited and waited.
Two states over, I was sitting in my office in Arkansas, helping lead an online execution vigil attended by opponents of the death penalty from across the United States and beyond. Yet another outgrowth of the COVID19 pandemic, these Zoom vigils have become a powerful convening of people who oppose executions for myriad reasons, gathering together to prayerfully protest and witness against each execution. Sometimes the execution goes as expected, and our vigil ends within an hour of the scheduled execution time. But often, especially in Alabama, nothing is predictable. That was certainly the case the night they killed Joe James, Jr.
Like others in leadership on that Zoom, I am familiar with typical execution processes. None of us could figure out what was going on, but we soon understood something was wrong. Because executions take place inside of prisons, we watch the play-by-play reports by the media, usually via Twitter. Reporters will declare, “We’re being taken to the witness room now,” and say they have to leave electronic devices behind. This usually happens a short time before the scheduled execution. When reporters’ departure is delayed, it is often while waiting for a court to deny or accept pending legal challenges. When the reporters are escorted out of their holding area, it’s a fair bet that the execution is imminent.
In the case of Joe James, Jr., what would normally be a matter of minutes dragged into several hours. Of course, there was silence from prison and government officials. Finally, we heard the execution was going forward. It turned out that reporters had been held in the prison van until just before the execution was about to take place. Once reporters were assembled in the witness room, the curtains were opened, and Joe James, Jr. was asked for a final statement. He made none. According to reports, his eyes were closed and he was unresponsive. This is highly unusual. Even when a prisoner declines to make a final statement, witnesses can hear a “no” or see him shake his head “no.” Fellow prisoners reported talking with James about what he had planned to say, so we know something was amiss.
The Alabama Department of Corrections assured everyone that “nothing out of the ordinary” had taken place. Because the Department of Corrections refused to be transparent about what happened, independent pathologists hired by Reprieve, an international human rights organization, performed an autopsy. Elizabeth Bruenig, a reporter with the Atlantic who witnessed the exam, published what she saw:
“The state seems to have attempted to insert IV catheters into each of his hands just above the knuckles, resulting in broad smears of violet bruising. Then it looked as though the execution team had tried again, forcing needles into each of his wrists, with the same bleeding beneath the skin and the same indigo mottling around the puncture wounds. On the inside of James’s left arm, another puncture site, another pool of deep bruising, and then, a scant distance above, a strange, jagged incision, at James’s inner elbow. The laceration met another cut at an obtuse angle. That longer, narrower slice was part of a parallel pair, which matched a fainter, shallower set of parallel cuts. Underneath the mutilated portion of James’s arm was what appeared to be yet another puncture—a noticeable crimson pinprick in the center of a radiating blue-green bruise. Other, less clear marks littered his arm as well.”
To put it mildly, Joe James Jr. was tortured by executioners who clearly had no idea of what they were doing. They poked and prodded and prodded and poked. Nobody witnessed all of this incompetence because the Department of Corrections did not pull back the curtains in the execution chamber until Joe James Jr. was already unconscious. Alabama officials refuse to disclose what happened, or precisely when Joe James, Jr. had been sedated.
Given the shocking evidence of difficulty to establish an intravenous flow in which to pump the execution drugs, one would hope that the executioners sedated him before they started cutting and poking more deeply. It seems more likely that they sedated him only after they were ready, but before they brought the witnesses in to watch the proceedings. This would have prevented James from complaining out loud about the torture he had just endured. When they sedated him remains a secret until a whistleblower comes forward, but Joe James, Jr’s injuries shout it loud and clear: Alabama botched another execution, and they did it in secret.
Whether or not you favor the death penalty, and even if you support torturing prisoners before we kill them, the execution of Joe James, Jr. should bring fundamental questions to the forefront.
Should our government be torturing people?
Does government have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible?
What can be done to ensure full transparency?
Should we continue to allow such secrecy in the conduct of executions?
Shouldn’t our government acknowledge its’ mistakes?
Our answers to these questions speak to the core of who we are as a society. Those prison walls and the curtains in the execution chamber separate us from witnessing the full process of executions. One of the deepest moral beliefs we have in this country is a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. We say we believe in freedom of information and informed participation in government. If that is true, the tragic lack of transparency that occurred at the execution of Joe James, Jr. must not be allowed to happen again.
We’ll never return to the era of public executions, but when we legally kill prisoners behind prison walls, the public must be represented by independent witnesses to the entire process, starting from the moment a prisoner walks him or herself into the death chamber until they are declared dead.
Those curtains run contrary to a democratic society. Public witnesses should know what’s going on in the execution chamber from start to finish. This is not only our right, it is our obligation. That is why we demand, “PULL BACK THE CURTAINS!”
SIGN THE PETITION: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/pull-back-the-curtains/
Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood has served as a spiritual advisor on various death rows for just over 12 years and has accompanied a number of prisoners before their execution. He serves on the Board of Advisors of Death Penalty Action.