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Alabama will carry out death penalties again after botched executions prompted a pause

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Alabama says it is ready to resume executions after a three-month moratorium. The pause was prompted by a series of botched executions last year. Now, after an internal review and rule change, the state says it's prepared to try again. Mary Scott Hodgin from member station WBHM reports.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Attorney Bernard Harcourt says botched executions cause immense trauma.

BERNARD HARCOURT: What's going on in Alabama has been torture.

HODGIN: Last year, Alabama prison officials tried and failed to execute two men, and they took more than three hours to kill another man. In each case, staff struggled to establish IV lines, and it wasn't the first time. In 2018, the state failed to execute another man, who was Harcourt's client.

HARCOURT: I mean, these are people who've had to say their final goodbyes who are led into the execution chamber strapped into the gurney, and they're subject to pricking and prodding with needles and are told that they're going to be executed some other time.

HODGIN: Alabama officials see it differently. The state's attorney general, Steve Marshall, says the troubled executions do not amount to torture.

STEVE MARSHALL: I disagree with their assessment. I gave blood the other day and got poked three times. I think those are just, you know, extraneous arguments that are really from somebody that doesn't want the death penalty to be carried out, period.

HODGIN: Marshall says Alabama only struggled with recent executions because of time constraints. The state used to get a one-day death warrant that expired at midnight. State officials say legal filings often ran out the clock on executions. So earlier this year, the court changed the rule. Now Alabama's governor gets to decide the execution time frame. That concerns people on death row, like this man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have worry because Alabama seems to be able to do whatever they want to do with no ramifications.

HODGIN: He asked us not to use his name for fear of retribution by prison staff. He says public descriptions of recent execution attempts describe men being jabbed multiple times all over their bodies for up to an hour or longer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That had nothing to do with courts and delays. That was incompetence.

HODGIN: Alabama, like many states, is secretive about its lethal injection protocol. There's no information about who conducts executions, and media is not allowed to watch officials set IV lines. Richard Dieter is with the Death Penalty Information Center.

RICHARD DIETER: We just don't know who those people are. That is to say, what their training is, whether they've had infractions in their practice or whatever. There may be some doctors. There may not be.

HODGIN: Dieter says states have struggled to get the drugs and medical staff to conduct executions. These issues have recently prompted governors in at least four states to halt executions and ask for outside reviews. But Dieter says Alabama asked the prison system to review its own execution process.

DIETER: The Alabama approach was one, very swift, two, not independent, and, three, I don't know what happened.

HODGIN: Prison officials have not released the findings from their internal review. Attorney General Marshall says he's confident in the state's response. And he's already requested the next execution date.

MARSHALL: We believe that the process itself is constitutional, and we'll continue to carry it out through this method until we get nitrogen hypoxia in place.

HODGIN: Nitrogen hypoxia is an execution method that has never been tested. It deprives a person of oxygen until they die. Alabama plans to have a system in place to try this new method by the end of the year. For NPR News, I'm Mary Scott Hodgin, in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORIST'S "INSTRUMENTAL 3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Scott Hodgin