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Alabama’s faith in death isn’t what crime victims need


Alabama’s faith in death isn’t what crime victims need

Mar 06, 2023 | 7:59 am ET
By Brian Lyman
Alabama’s faith in death isn’t what crime victims need
The American flag flying at Holman Correctional Facility on Oct. 22, 2019 (FIle)

State officials justified the end of Alabama’s brief execution moratorium with appeals about solace for the families of victims. 

“Far too many Alabama families have waited for far too long — often for decades — to obtain justice for the loss of a loved one and to obtain closure for themselves,” Gov. Kay Ivey wrote in a letter to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall last month. “This brief pause in executions was necessary to make sure that we can successfully deliver that justice and that closure.”

Marshall, who made his displeasure with the moratorium clear to all, immediately picked up the theme in a statement saying that some crimes were “so heinous, atrocious and cruel … that the only just punishment is death.”

I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a family member to violence. I pray I never do. Personally, I don’t think anything would ever bring me closure on that.

What I do know is that a state that really cared about the trauma and anguish of families who saw one of their own murdered would offer all of the health and counseling services they could, free of charge. Or, at a minimum, get them the money they’re owed under state law. 

Since 1984, Alabama has provided crime victims and their families payments to cover everything from medical bills to funeral expenses. The money is meant to fill in what insurance or civil litigation can’t cover.

But the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission is struggling to meet the needs of those who have applied for help. As the Reflector’s Ralph Chapoco recently reported, applicants have been waiting for up to a year to receive compensation under the law. 

Many who had received responses said the commission still left them in the dark about the reasons for their decisions. 

The commission itself is funded off fines and fees collected from people going through the criminal justice system. That in itself seems problematic, but the commission says the revenues from those funds are in decline, and they don’t have the staffing they need to keep up with the applications. 

The solution shouldn’t be too difficult. The commission had a total budget of $4.5 million in 2021. Getting money to the commission from the state’s $2.7 billion General Fund, on paper at least, seems easy. 

Getting health care in all its forms to these victims would at least be a step toward recovery. And despite Gov. Ivey’s statement, it’s not at all clear that the death penalty is really a part of that process. 

A 2012 study of the families of murder victims in Texas (a state with the death penalty) and Minnesota (a state without it) found that the length of the appeals process in death penalty cases can make it harder for families to move on. Appeals of life sentences in Minnesota were generally settled in two years; in Texas, the process could go for 15 years or longer.

a state that really cared about the trauma and anguish of families who saw one of their own murdered would offer all of the health and counseling services they could, free of charge. Or, at a minimum, get them the money they’re owed under state law.

The daughters of Faith Hall, who Joe Nathan James, Jr., was convicted of murdering in 1994, asked for James be resentenced to life in prison before his execution last July. One of Hall’s daughters, Toni Hall Melton, told al.com that “you take his life, you’re not bringing her back. You’re doing this to another family … that’s not justice at all.”

But the state went ahead with the execution. 

Crime victims are not a monolith, and some say they do find closure in execution. But if that’s the case, the Alabama Department of Corrections cannot be trusted to deliver it.  

Joe Nathan James’ execution took two-and-a-half hours. (Death by lethal injection, as I have witnessed it, typically takes about 20 minutes.) An independent autopsy conducted after the execution found deep incisions on James’ arms, suggesting that either staff cut into his skin to establish an IV line or that he struggled against the restraints of the gurney. The Department of Corrections said at the time it could not confirm whether James was unconscious as the fatal drugs were administered.

In September, DOC called off Alan Eugene Miller’s execution after another failed attempt at establishing an IV line. Miller later said department staff punctured his arms, hands, legs and feet for hours, then left him strapped upright in a gurney, bleeding out of his wounds.

In November, DOC called off Kenneth Eugene Smith’s execution after poking him with needles for an hour. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said after the attempts that he did not know the qualifications of the medical personnel who were conducting the execution.

That led to a brief moratorium on executions that ended a week and a half ago, when Hamm announced that DOC had checked itself out, and concluded everything was fine. 

Whatever your feelings about the death penalty, you should expect a state that carries out executions to do so with the highest level of competence. DOC has repeatedly shown that it cannot meet that standard. 

Nor should anyone have confidence in the review. Any investigation should include a report explaining methods, discoveries and conclusions. For all we know, Hamm’s letter is the extent of the investigation. If there’s any other report, neither DOC nor Ivey’s office are saying; the governor’s office did not answer questions on that front last week. 

That Ivey and Marshall nodded at this shallow vindication means the review was an adventure in hide-covering. We’re no closer to knowing what went wrong last year. And it’s clear neither the governor nor the attorney general really care if people – even people who should spend the rest of their lives in prison – are being tortured to death by the state on behalf of Alabamians.

Because for state officials, this isn’t about closure. It’s about a simplistic faith in death: in death’s ability to restore balance and make things right. It’s a faith that cares little for how torturous or drawn-out those executions are. No science, no pleas from family members will overturn that fact.

It’s far easier to do that than fix the systems meant to aid these families or provide them the resources they need to move forward. When that day comes, then Alabama will really show a concern for crime victims.