ADOC 'cannot confirm' if Joe Nathan James Jr. was fully conscious before his execution

·3 min read

Prison officials "cannot confirm" whether Joe Nathan James Jr. was fully conscious in the minutes before his execution began on July 28.

Witnesses to the execution were seated at 8:57 p.m. in the viewing room at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. The curtain was raised at 9:02 p.m. and officials began administering lethal drugs through an IV already in James' left arm at 9:04 p.m.

In the two minutes he was in view of witnesses before his execution began, James, 50, didn't open his eyes and didn't move on the gurney. Asked for his final words, he was silent.

James was put to death for the 1994 killing of his former girlfriend, Faith Hall, of Birmingham. Prosecutors said he stalked and terrorized Hall for months before shooting her to death in her home.

Joe Nathan James, Jr. execution: What we know, don't know about 3-hour delay

James' execution began after a three-hour delay. Once the drugs began to flow, James blinked and his eyes fluttered briefly. He was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m.

Kelly Betts, ADOC’s public information officer, sent an email to members of the media Friday afternoon explaining that the delay — during which members of the media were kept in a van outside the execution chamber for nearly two-and-a-half hours — was caused by issues establishing an IV line to administer the injection.

When a member of the media asked Thursday night if James had been sedated prior to the flow of the lethal injection, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said that James was not sedated.

On Friday, the Advertiser asked if James was fully conscious at the time of his execution. Betts responded that James was not sedated. Asked again if he was fully conscious, Betts replied, “I cannot confirm that.”

Alabama governor: Joe James execution set despite wishes of victim's family

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that the ADOC’s response is troubling regardless of James’ mental state in the moments before the lethal injection was administered.

“If the department does not know whether a prisoner is conscious or unconscious at the time of the execution, then they are incompetent to carry an execution out. If the department does know but will not say, then they cannot be trusted,” Dunham said. “It is precisely this kind of verbal gymnastics and refusal to be forthcoming that undermines public confidence in the trustworthiness of the states to carry out the death penalty fairly and reliably.”

If James was in fact unconscious or unresponsive, then the public deserves to know why, Dunham said.

“If the prisoner is unconscious and has not been sedated, there was either a medical issue or some very questionable conduct by the state in rendering the prisoner unconscious,” Dunham said. “Whatever it is, the public is entitled to know.”

Previous coverage: Joe Nathan James' execution delayed more than three hours by IV issues, ADOC says

The state in 2018 called off the execution of Doyle Lee Hamm after staff was unable to establish an IV line. Staff punctured Hamm at least 11 times in his limbs and groin, causing him to bleed profusely on the gurney.

Hamm’s attorney claimed the procedure was cruel and unusual, a “constitutionally prohibited cruel, unnecessarily painful, slow, and lingering process to death.”

Hamm lived the rest of his life in prison before his death in 2021 from complications from cancer. Because he could walk away from his botched execution, the public knew the extent of the ADOC’s failure.

But as the ADOC keeps veiled what happened in the lead-up to James’ execution, it’s impossible to say whether his treatment was unconstitutionally cruel.

“Unless we know what the state did, ...I don’t think anybody can determine whether what they did was constitutional,” Dunham said.

Evan Mealins is the justice reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. Contact him at emealins@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanMealins.

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This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Joe Nathan execution: ADOC 'cannot confirm' if conscious beforehand