ATMORE, Ala. — A divided U.S. Supreme Court said Alabama may proceed Thursday night with the lethal injection of a prisoner convicted of a 1999 workplace shooting, with two lower court rulings siding with the convicted man and his request for a other method of execution undone.
The 5-4 decision overturned rulings by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a federal judge that the lethal injection could not proceed after Alan Miller’s lawyers said the state lost its paperwork and requested that his execution be carried out using of nitrogen hypoxia, a method legally available to him, but one that has never been used in the US before
Miller, 57, was convicted of killing three people in a 1999 workplace outburst that demanded the death penalty. A judge blocked the state’s execution plan earlier this week.
Miller testified that four years ago, he turned in the paperwork and chose nitrogen hypoxia as his method of execution, and put it in a slot in his cell door at the Holman Correctional Facility for a prison worker to retrieve.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. issued a preliminary injunction blocking the state from killing Miller by any means other than nitrogen hypoxia after it determined it was “substantially probable” that Miller “submitted a timely election form, although the state says it is not a physical record of a form.” has.”
Thursday night’s Supreme Court ruling overturned that ban at the state’s request. The judges lifted the detention at about 9 p.m. and gave the state three hours to get the execution underway before the death sentence expires at midnight. The July execution of Joe Nathan James took more than three hours to get underway after the state struggled to set up an intravenous line.
Although Alabama has allowed nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, it has never executed anyone using that method, and the state prison system has not yet finalized procedures for using it to carry out a death sentence.
Nitrogen hypoxia is a proposed method of execution that would cause death by forcing the inmate to inhale only nitrogen, depriving him or her of the oxygen needed to maintain bodily functions. It is allowed in three states as a method of execution, but no state has attempted to put a prisoner to death using the untested method. Alabama officials told the judge they are working to finalize the protocol.
Many states have struggled to purchase execution drugs in recent years after US and European pharmaceutical companies began blocking the use of their lethal injection products. That has led some to seek alternative methods.
When Alabama approved nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method in 2018, state law gave inmates a short time to designate it as their method of execution. Miller testified that he chose nitrogen when the death row form was handed out because he hated needles.
“Just because the state is not yet ready to execute someone for nitrogen hypoxia does not mean it will harm the state or the public to honor Miller’s timely election of nitrogen hypoxia. By contrast, if no warrant is issued, Miller will be irrevocably deprived of his choice in how he will die — a choice given to him by the Alabama legislature,” Huffaker wrote.
Miller was visited by relatives and a lawyer on Thursday while he waited to see if his execution would go ahead. He was given a tray of meatloaf, chuckwagon steak, macaroni and fries, according to the prison system.
Prosecutors said Miller, a truck driver, killed colleagues Lee Holdbrooks and Scott Yancy at a business in suburban Birmingham, then drove off to shoot former supervisor Terry Jarvis at a company where Miller had previously worked. Each man was shot multiple times and Miller was captured after a highway chase.
Witness statements revealed that Miller believed the men were spreading rumors about him, including that he was gay. A defense-hired psychiatrist found Miller was suffering from a serious mental illness, but also said Miller’s condition wasn’t bad enough to serve as the basis for a defense against insanity under state law.
This story has been corrected to show Alabama’s last execution was in July.