Inmate Had No Last Words, Which Some See as Suspicious

Private autopsy suggests Joe Nathan James Jr.'s arm may have been cut to find a vein
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 30, 2022 10:45 AM CDT
Group Alleges This Man's July Execution Was Botched
This undated photo shows inmate Joe Nathan James Jr., who was put to death on July 28.   (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)

An anti-death penalty group alleges that Alabama corrections officials apparently botched an inmate's execution last month, citing the length of time that passed before the prisoner received the lethal injection and a private autopsy indicating his arm may have been cut to find a vein. Joe Nathan James Jr. was put to death July 28 at an Alabama prison for the 1994 shooting death of his former girlfriend. The execution was carried out more than three hours after the US Supreme Court denied a request for a stay. "Subjecting a prisoner to three hours of pain and suffering is the definition of cruel and unusual punishment," the head of Reprieve US Forensic Justice Initiative said in a statement.

The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences declined a request to release the state's autopsy of James, citing an ongoing review that happens after every execution. Officials haven't responded to requests for comment on the private autopsy, which was first reported by the Atlantic. The state later acknowledged that the execution was delayed because of difficulties establishing an intravenous line, but it didn't specify how long it took. Dr. Joel Zivot, an expert on lethal injection who witnessed the private autopsy, said it looked like there were numerous attempts to connect a line.

Zivot said he saw "multiple puncture sites on both arms" and two perpendicular incisions, each about 1 inch to 1.5 inches in length, in the middle of the arm, which he said indicated that officials had attempted to perform a "cutdown," a procedure in which the skin is opened to allow a visual search for a vein. He said the cutdown is an old-style medical intervention rarely performed in modern medical settings, and that it would be painful without anesthesia. A reporter for the AP who saw James when he was already strapped to the gurney with the IV line connected observed that James didn't respond when the warden asked if he had final words.

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His eyes remained closed except for briefly fluttering at one point early in the procedure. John Hamm, commissioner of the state's Department of Corrections, said James wasn't sedated. The attorney who helped James file his appeal with the US Supreme Court said he was disturbed by James' reported lack of movements and raised questions about what happened before the lethal injection. "That wasn't the Joe that I knew," said James Ranson. "He always had something to say. He always wanted to be in control. The fact that he did not give any sort of reaction ... and that he didn't open his eyes tells me something was up." The Atlantic quoted one of James' friends as saying that the inmate had planned to make a final statement. (The family of the woman he killed did not want James executed.)

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