The Supreme Court’s Cold Indifference in Alabama Death Penalty Case | Austin Sarat | Verdict


With the Supreme Court last minute blessing, Alabama was set to execute Alan Miller last Thursday night, until it wasn’t. But it’s not like they didn’t try to kill him. The drama was great: the state canceled its execution minutes before midnight when his death warrant was due to expire. The execution team had encountered difficulties in finding a usable seam.

Asked to explain what was wrong with this last botched lethal injectionAlabama Commissioner of Corrections John Hamm just said that the execution was called off because “access to the veins was taking a little longer than expected”.

Stopping Miller’s execution is the latest twist in a case that has had more than its share of false starts and highlight the cruelty of capital punishment

In our democratic culture, the taking of life by the state is considered deeply troubling, and it is of course universally true that death is irreversible. So the cases of death are expected to be handled with extraordinary care.

In Miller’s case, we saw the exact opposite. What stands out is both Alabama’s extraordinary recklessness and the Supreme Court‘s cold indifference to that recklessness.

There are, of course, many things we don’t yet know and may never know about what Alabama did from the time it got the green light to execute Miller until the time where he interrupted his execution. This period is marked by what, in the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq, the late Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once labeled the “known unknowns”.

The unknowns and knowns of the Miller case all point in the same troubling direction. They highlight the chaos and neglect, as well as the cruelty, of Alabama’s efforts to put him to death. Similar chaos and the same staggering cruelty haunt the death penalty system wherever it is applied in this country.

Among the unanswered questions:

How many times did the Alabama enforcement team poke and poke Miller with needles?

In which parts of his body did he try to secure the IV line needed to perform his lethal injection?

Did Alabama inflict the same kind of pain as when he couldn’t find the veins of Doyle Hamm in 2018 and Joe Nathan James last July during their horrible botched executions?

We may learn more over time, but there are some things we do know now.

We know that Miller afraid of needles, and he doesn’t want to die by lethal injection.

We know that Alabama added nitrogen hypoxia to its Implementing Procedures authorized in 2018.

We know he offered Miller and all his other death row inmates the option of avoiding the needle by choosing nitrogen hypoxia. The state asked them to notify the state in writing within 30 days if they wanted to die this way.

We know that there is a serious dispute as to whether Miller submitted the necessary form to choose this method of execution. He maintains that he submitted the form. The state says it never received it.

We know Miller wanted a hearing to resolve the form dispute and for a judge to permanently bar Alabama from doing what he tried to do last week: execute him by lethal injection.

We know that Federal District Judge R. Austin Huffakera Trump appointee and two of the three judges on a panel of 11e Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Alabama should be prevented from doing so, at least temporarily.

And we know that at 9 p.m. on September 22, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned those decisions, denied Miller the relief he soughtand gave Alabama the green light to use a lethal injection to kill him.

He did so by a vote of 5 to 4, with Justice Amy Coney Barret again joining the Court’s three liberal justices as it has done in a few other death cases. The Majority did not bother to produce a notice explaining why they were allowing Miller’s execution to proceed.

Let’s look at why Judge Huffaker and two appellate judges thought Miller’s execution should be stayed before returning to review the Supreme Court‘s decision.

On September 19, Judge Huffaker issued a preliminary injunction halt Miller’s execution after hearing testimony from the state and from Miller. He clarified that he was not making a final decision on the merits of the claimant’s allegations regarding the lost form.

At the preliminary injunction hearing, Judge Huffaker did what trial judges are supposed to do. He carefully assessed the credibility of the witness’s testimony.

His conclusion: “The Court finds Miller’s testimony sufficiently credible that he timely submitted a nitrogen election form.”

All the state said in response was that it didn’t have the form. But as the judge noted, that “does not mean it was not received… It could have simply been misplaced after receipt…”.

Judge Huffaker also went out of his way to note the sloppy manner in which Department of Corrections officials handled methods of execution forms. As he put it, “Here, the Court has before it no evidence of a standard policy or procedure for ADOC officials to collect and forward completed forms…for registration and the conversation.

And the judge noted that Alabama had failed to meet the most basic requirements of responsible behavior in handing over important documents. “There was no evidence,” Judge Huffaker said, “of a chain of custody from the time the forms were collected…to other ADOC officials.”

The judge concluded that the plaintiff had “demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success” on his legal claims and would suffer irreparable harm if the court did not issue an injunction.

In the American legal system, appellate courts have traditionally give great deference to the factual findings of the trial judges.

Wednesday, the 11the Circuit Court of Appeals followed this tradition. He noted that Alabama has not challenged as “clearly erroneous, any of the factual findings of the district court… This is, in our view, because on this record, the state cannot show that any findings of fact are clearly wrong”.

The 11the The circuit panel agreed with Judge Huffaker’s findings regarding Miller’s chances of success and the irreparable harm he would suffer.

But the ink was barely dry on his judgment when the Supreme Court handed down its decision.

Five of the court’s conservative justices ignored the tradition of deferring to the trial court’s findings of fact and allowed Miller’s execution to proceed despite substantial evidence of negligence and recklessness. Alabama.

This case highlights their willingness to cut corners and limiting legal rights to enable states to carry out executions. That Chief Justice John Roberts, who has invested so much in trying to repair the Supreme Court’s damaged reputation, sided with the majority is another puzzling aspect of this case.

Neither the chief justice nor the other members of the majority gave Miller the courtesy of an explanation. And, shockingly, the fact that someone’s life was at stake made no difference to them.

Many have commented on the increasing tendency of the Court to rule without writing an opinion. When they do, the majority justices send a clear signal that they can make these decisions simply because they have the votes to do so, not because reason dictates the outcome.

In Miller’s case, the judges who silently sentenced him to death reminded us of what Judge Robert Jackson once said of himself and his fellow judges: “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are only infallible because we are final.”

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