Supreme Court considers Alabama's bid to allow execution

·4-min read
Alabama Execution (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Alabama Execution (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The U.S. Supreme Court considered Thursday whether to let Alabama execute a death row inmate who claims an intellectual disability combined with the state's inattention cost him a chance to avoid lethal injection and choose a less “torturous,” yet untried, method.

The Alabama attorney general's office asked the justices to lift a lower court order that blocked prison workers from putting to death Matthew Reeves, who was convicted of killing a driver who gave him a ride and then celebrating the man's killing at a party with blood still on his hands.

The state said it was preparing to execute Reeves, 43, by lethal injection at Holman Prison in case the court allowed it to go forward as scheduled at 6 p.m. CST.

The state previously asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift a lower court injunction and allow the execution, but the panel on Wednesday refused and said a judge didn’t abuse his discretion in ruling that the state couldn't execute Reeves by any method other than nitrogen hypoxia, which has never been used. Alabama appealed that decision, sending the case to the Supreme Court.

Reeves was sentenced to die for the murder of Willie Johnson, who was killed by a shotgun blast to the neck during a robbery in Selma on Nov. 27, 1996, after picking up Reeves and others on the side of a rural highway. Eighteen at the time, Reeves went to a party and celebrated the killing afterward, evidence showed.

After the dying man was robbed of $360, Reeves danced and mimicked Johnson’s death convulsions at a party, authorities said. A witness said Reeves’ hands were still stained with blood at the celebration, a court ruling said, and he bragged about getting a “teardrop” tattoo to signify that he’d killed someone.

Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union ambassador to the U.S., sent a letter both condemning Johnson's killing and asking Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to block the execution because of Reeves’ claims of an intellectual disability. Ivey also has received a clemency bid from Reeves’ attorneys and will consider all such requests, an aide said.

While courts have upheld Reeves' conviction, the last-minute fight to stop the execution involved his intellect, his rights under federal disability law and how the state planned to kill him.

Alabama switched from the electric chair to lethal injection after 2002, and in 2018 legislators approved the use of another method, nitrogen hypoxia, amid defense challenges to injections and shortages of chemicals needed for the procedure. The new hypoxia method, which hasn't been used in the U.S., would cause death by replacing oxygen that the inmate breathes with nitrogen.

Alabama inmates had a chance to sign a form choosing either lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method in 2018 after legislators approved the use of nitrogen. But Reeves was among the inmates who didn’t fill out the form stating a preference.

A poor reader, Reeves is intellectually disabled and wasn’t capable of making such a decision without assistance that should have been provided under the American With Disabilities Act, his lawyers argued. A prison worker who gave Reeves a form didn't offer aid to help him understand, they said.

With Reeves contending he would have chosen nitrogen hypoxia over a “torturous” lethal injection had he comprehended the form, the defense filed suit asking a court to halt the lethal injection. U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker, Jr. blocked the execution, ruling that Reeves had a good chance of winning the claim under the disabilities law.

A defense expert concluded Reeves reads at a first grade level and has the language competency of someone as young as 4, but the state disagrees that Reeves has a disability that would prevent him from understanding his options. The inmate was able to read and signed other forms through the years, it argued, and officials had no obligation under state law to help him pick a method.

Alabama has said it plans to have a system for the new execution method ready by the end of April, court documents show, but the state argued against delaying Reeves’ execution. Any postponement is the fault of the state given how long it has taken to implement the new system, the 11th Circuit ruled.

An Alabama inmate who was put to death by lethal injection last year, Willie B. Smith, unsuccessfully raised claims about being intellectually unable to make the choice for nitrogen hypoxia.

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