Joe Nathan James was set to be executed by the state of Alabama at 6 pm on July 28. But the execution was delayed by three hours, and when media personnel was finally allowed into the execution chamber, they saw a man who appeared unconscious as prison employees read his death warrant and asked for his last words.
“My initial impression of James was of someone whose hands and wrists had been burst by needles, in every place one can bend or flex,” wrote Elizabeth Bruenig, who was present for a private autopsy, in The Atlantic. “James, it appeared, had suffered a long death. The state seems to have attempted to insert IV catheters into each of his hands just above the knuckles, resulting in broad smears of violet bruising. Then it looked as though the execution team had tried again, forcing needles into each of his wrists, with the same bleeding beneath the skin and the same indigo mottling around the puncture wounds.” Bruenig also described a deep cut in James’ arm, possibly created to expose a vein.
The private autopsy also revealed several puncture wounds found away from any veins. Joel Zivot, a professor of anesthesiology at Emory University and an expert on lethal injection, told The Atlantic they could have been from “intramuscular injections,” which “in this setting would only be used to deliver a sedating medication.”
The state of Alabama refuses to give information that could make the true nature of what happened to James on July 28 clear. “I can’t overemphasize this process. We’re carrying out the ultimate punishment, the execution of an inmate. And we have protocols and we’re very deliberate in our process, and making sure everything goes according to plan. So if that takes a few minutes or a few hours, that’s what we do,” Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm told the Associated Press. Hamm claims that “nothing out of the ordinary” had occurred during James’ execution. When pressed if there was difficulty in finding a vein for James’ lethal injection, Hamm said “I don’t know.”
Botched executions are becoming increasingly common as death penalty states struggle to source the drugs used to kill their prisoners. For example, in 2014, another inmate, this time in Oklahoma (which hosts a disturbing record of botched executions) was killed after prison officials reported a “vein failure.” Lauren Krisai, director of criminal justice reform at Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this site), wrote that prison officials’ attempt to administer lethal drugs left the prisoner, Clayton Lockett, “mumbling, breathing heavily, and appeared to be struggling. Sixteen minutes [into the attempted execution], Lockett said ‘man’ out loud, and tried to get up. Following this, a female prison official told horrified eyewitnesses, ‘We are going to lower the blinds temporarily.’ The blinds were never lifted.”
James was convicted of murdering Faith Hall, his former girlfriend and mother of two young daughters, in 1994. However, Hall’s family has spent the past several years urging the state not to execute James. “We shouldn’t be playing God,” Hall’s daughter Toni, who was only three years old when her mother was killed, told CBS 42. “An eye for an eye has never been a good outlook for life.” While the family’s wishes do not have any legal standing, this particular detail highlights one of the many cruelties of the death penalty.
When asked what he’d like to tell James, Helvetius Hall, Faith Hall’s brother, told CBS 42, “You really hurt the Hall family. You took a big part of our life from us.” However, Hall added, “taking his life is not going to bring Faith back.”