Faith leaders urge independent review of Alabama executions

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — More than 170 pastors and other faith leaders on Tuesday urged Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to authorize an independent review of execution procedures, as Oklahoma and Tennessee did after a series of failed lethal injections in those states.

The group applauded Ivey for taking the “bold and necessary step” of ordering a review of Alabama execution procedures following problems locating intravenous lines during three lethal injections, but said that review should be done by those outside the state prison system. Ivey in November ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections, which carries out executions, to undertake the review.

“Given the gravity of what has transpired, we respectfully request a comprehensive, independent, and external review of Alabama’s death penalty procedures,” they wrote in a letter delivered to Ivey’s Alabama Capitol Office on Tuesday.

The faith leaders said the review should be conducted openly — and by a person or group other than the Alabama Department of Corrections. “The fact of the matter is that an agency that has failed repeatedly to get its own house in order cannot be trusted to privately conduct an investigation into problems it is causing,” they wrote.

The group cited the example of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who authorized a state review after acknowledging that the state failed to ensure its lethal injection drugs were properly tested. A former U.S. attorney conducted the review. It found Tennessee had not complied with its own lethal injection process ever since it was revised in 2018, resulting in several executions that were conducted without proper testing of the drugs used.

A review was also conducted in Oklahoma after the 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett. After the first drug was administered, Lockett struggled on a gurney for 43 minutes before he was declared dead. The review was conducted by a separate state agency from the prison system. It was later learned that members of the execution team had improperly inserted an IV into a vein in Lockett’s groin.

The independent Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission also scrutinized state procedures.

Ivey cited concerns for the victims and their families in ordering the review in Alabama. “For the sake of the victims and their families, we’ve got to get this right,” Ivey said.

Carrying out an execution is the state's responsibility to uphold the law and to ensuring justice, Ivey spokesperson Gina Maiola wrote in a statement. "This is a responsibility Governor Ivey takes very seriously, and as she has made very clear along the way, this will review remain transparent as is appropriate, while also protecting sensitive information,” she continued.

The Alabama review has so far yielded changes to make it easier to carry out death sentences. At Ivey’s request, the Alabama Supreme Court gave the state a longer amount of time to carry out executions by allowing death warrants authorizing an execution to last for more than 24 hours.

Ivey announced the pause on executions after a third failed lethal injection in the state. The state called off the November execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith after failing to get an intravenous line connected within the 100-minute window between when courts cleared the way for it to begin and the death warrant's midnight deadline expired.

In September the state called off the scheduled execution of Alan Miller because of difficulty accessing his veins. Alabama in 2018 called off the execution of Doyle Hamm because of problems getting the intravenous line connected. Hamm had damaged veins because of lymphoma, hepatitis and past drug use, his lawyer said.

The state completed an execution in July, but only after a three-hour delay caused at least partly by the same problem with starting an IV line.