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Alabama’s Last Execution Was An Atrocity

Stephen Cooper

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By Stephen Cooper
Alabama Political Reporter

The last time Alabama played God, executing death row inmate Christopher Brooks by lethal injection on January 21, 2016, The Montgomery Advertiser and al.com published a column of mine in which I wrote:

“Initial reports out of Alabama are that the execution went as ‘smoothly’ as killing a reasonably healthy 43-year-old man can go. In any event, it appears there was no visible evidence Brooks suffered bodily distress as the lethal drugs were administered, prompting Alabama Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn to say that the execution with the controversial sedative drug midazolam ‘went exactly as planned[.]” (See Executions are hardly an exact science, on February 8, 2016, and Courts denied phone to attorneys of man condemned to death, on February 9, 2016).

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Boy, was I wrong. I was wrong just like Commissioner Dunn, and every media representative and Alabama law enforcement official in attendance was wrong – for painting Mr. Brooks’ execution as a peaceful passing, like he just curled up in a comfy hammock and dozed off – never to wake again.

In a federal court filing on April 15, 2016, that has been inexplicably unreported in the media, Mr. Brooks’ federal defenders, who additionally represent Ronald Bert Smith (scheduled for execution on December 8), allege that after Mr. Brooks was injected with the controversial drug midazolam – the first in Alabama’s three-drug execution cocktail which is supposed to anesthetize the prisoner so that they are “insensate” (completely lacking any physical sensation) – a witness to Brooks’ execution, a federal investigator, Ms. Terri Deep, saw that “Mr. Brooks’ left eye opened after the consciousness assessment and, assuming they even noticed, no one from the ADOC [Alabama Department of Corrections] took any action.”

The filing further alleges that:

(1) “[t]he fact that Mr. Brooks’ eye opened indicates he was feeling sensation contemporaneous with, or prior to, injection of the paralytic. Therefore, he was sensate at the time he was executed by injection of potassium chloride,” (2) “[t]he final drug, potassium chloride, disrupts the normal electrical activity of the heart and induces cardiac arrest by stopping the heart from pumping blood. Potassium chloride traveling in the blood stream from the site of injection towards the heart causes an extreme burning sensation as it moves through the body destroying the internal organs,” and (3) in the event the inmate is not properly anesthetized, “potassium chloride will cause excruciating pain” (citing a 2016 report by the National Institutes of Health).

In The death penalty in Alabama: What’s it really like?, published by The Montgomery Advertiser in April, I discussed in graphic detail what it means when lethal drugs are administered to a condemned person who is not “insensate,” a word commonly used in the death penalty context to, as the Supreme Court put it, “eliminate any meaningful risk that a prisoner would experience pain from the subsequent injections” (Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35, 49 (2008)).

I wrote:

“That first drug is supposed to put you down, painlessly, like a dog – your eyes just close and you ‘go to sleep’ forever. Except often, it don’t work like that. Because when that first drug don’t do the trick and your eyes close like your sleepin’, but really, you’re not, they inject them next drugs and then your muscles stop workin’, your lungs can’t breathe, and your beaten broken-down heart goes bust. And then, Jesus H. Christ have mercy, you feel it, every sharp stinging step of the way. Like your insides are melting, ‘cause they are … they’re melting from the inside out … they’re burnin’, bubblin’, liquefyin’ … like a bonfire raging inside of you … and you’re the witch. You ever hear that expression a death by a thousand cuts? The needle, the ‘big jab,’ the ‘stainless steel ride,’ – whatever you want to call this lethal injection business – it may be worse.”

Attached to their filing pending before The Honorable Chief District Judge W. Keith Watkins, Smith and Brooks’ federal defenders have attached a sworn affidavit from Ms. Deep about her observation that “[b]efore the curtains were closed, Mr. Brooks’ left eye opened, and was still open when the execution chamber curtains were closed.” Medical experts, they allege, indicate that it is medically impossible for Mr. Brooks’ eye to have opened during his execution unless he was experiencing exactly that type of “excruciating pain” the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids.

Alabama’s Attorney General’s office, beleaguered Governor Robert Bentley, and ADOC have not, to this date, offered any substantive response to the federal defenders’ claims about what now appears to be yet another shameful example of a botched US execution – in which a death row inmate was forced to suffer cruel and unusual punishment – in the name of justice.

Tommy Arthur’s execution in Alabama, scheduled for November 3, will mimic Mr. Brooks’ gruesome demise if allowed to proceed. Ronald Bert Smith’s execution date follows closely after on December 8. Will the people of Alabama allow these executions to go forward in their name, or will they, in the name of all that is good, and all that is right, demand that Governor Bentley immediately declare a halt to all State executions?

Why?

Because Alabama may have just burned a man alive.

About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama, in the same office that represented Christopher Brooks, between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

 

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Opinion | Preserving our history to protect our future

Gerald Allen

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Doing the right thing isn’t always politically expedient, but a strong leader does what’s necessary regardless of her critics. Governor Kay Ivey exemplifies this kind of no-nonsense leadership.

Last year, our state faced a difficult decision: should we listen to the politically-correct, out-of-state pundits or do what’s best for the future of Alabama?

All across Alabama, we have monuments and statues that tell our storied past. Many of these moments have affected our entire nation and shaped us to be who we are today. History doesn’t just tell us where we’ve been, it often provides signals and warnings for how to avoid repeating past errors. As George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Nearly one year ago, I sponsored the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act, a law that protects historic monuments and memorials in Alabama from thoughtless destruction.

More specifically, the Memorial Preservation Act prohibits the destruction or alteration of public monuments older than forty years, and established a standing committee to hear waiver requests from cities and counties, while historic artifacts under the control of museums, archives, libraries, and universities were specifically exempted from the prohibition against removal or alteration.

This law is the result of countless discussions with other legislators, historians, and interested citizens, and the intent is to preserve memorials to all of Alabama’s history – including the Civil War, the World Wars, and the Civil Rights movement – for generations to come.

We’ve seen a wave of political correctness sweep the nation, and too often, these attempts have resulted in re-writing of the American story. This politically-correct movement to strike whole periods of the past from our collective memory is divisive and unnecessary. In order to understand our complete history and where we are today, we have to tell it as it happened.

As a lawmaker, I believe it is incumbent upon us to preserve our state’s history, and I am grateful that Governor Ivey, in the face of criticism, stood up for the thoughtful preservation of Alabama’s history – the good and the bad. As father and grandfather, I am especially grateful she understood the importance of our children and grandchildren learning from the past, so they can create a better future.

Sen. Gerald Allen serves Senate District 21 which includes: Lamar County, Pickens County,and Tuscaloosa County.

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Opinion | The push for a balanced budget

Bradley Byrne

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When the 115th Congress kicked off last January, I immediately introduced a bill that I believe is fundamental to the future of our country: a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The premise of a Balanced Budget Amendment is pretty straightforward. The federal government should not be allowed to spend more than we take in, except in extraordinary circumstances like a time of war.

This isn’t some sort of far flung idea. When I served in the Alabama State Legislature, we were required to pass a balanced budget each year. It was not always easy, but it was the law. The vast majority of states have the same requirement.

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Balancing a budget is also a common occurrence for families in Alabama and across the United States. Every month, people sit around their kitchen table to figure out how to make ends meet and live within their means. Small businesses must do the same.

The federal government should have to play by the same rules.

To truly enact a Balanced Budget Amendment, we would need to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a reminder, in order to amend the Constitution, the Balanced Budget Amendment must pass both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority and then be ratified by three-fourths of the states, which is 38 out of the 50 states. The only other way to amend the Constitution would be through a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the states.

Recently, the House voted on House Joint Resolution 2, proposing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. Despite receiving the support of a majority of us in the House, the bill did not receive the two-thirds majority necessary under the Constitution.

I was deeply disappointed that most Democrats in the House opposed the Balanced Budget Amendment. Despite talking a lot about our debt, they rejected one of the best opportunities to actually restore fiscal sanity in Washington.

Throughout the course of the debate, two important topics were raised, and I wanted to briefly address each of them.

First, despite what my colleagues on the other side of the aisle believe, the answer to our debt issues is not to tax the American people more. We do not have a tax problem; we have a spending problem.

To be clear, the recently passed tax cuts are not to blame for our nation’s debt issues. As the Heritage Foundation recently pointed out, “tax revenue is expected to fall by only 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year and spending is expected to climb by 3 percent of GDP.” Again, we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem.

Second, the most serious drivers of the national debt are on autopilot. For example, if you eliminated every penny Congress appropriated for defense spending next year, the federal government would still be projected to operate in a deficit.   So-called mandatory spending programs must be reined in, and a balanced budget amendment would finally require Congress to tackle those programs head on.

Now, I know passing a balanced budget would be hard, but I did not run for Congress because I thought the job would be easy. We were elected by our neighbors to make difficult choices and decisions.

So, while our recent effort to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment came up short, I will not let it stop me from continuing to push for a balanced budget that requires the federal government to live within our means, just like the American people.

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Opinion | Vengeful Alabama to kill 83-year-old man

Stephen Cooper

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Barring intervention by courts or its governor, Alabama will kill an 83-year-old man on April 19; long-incarcerated for the 1989 mail-bomb killings of United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance and civil rights attorney Robert E. Robinson, Walter Moody, Jr.’s wizened, withered body, will, three decades after his crimes, be strapped to a gurney, pricked with a sharp needle (possibly many, many times), and pumped full of chemicals until he is dead.

Why? Other than the reactionary, regressive idea of “retribution” – whose flawed moral underpinning is interchangeable with bloodthirsty, wild, wild West revenge – how will justice be served? And, for whom?

The premeditated, state-sponsored senicide of the most senior of senior citizens on Alabama’s death row won’t make anyone – not anyone in Alabama, and not anyone anywhere in the United States or the world – safer. As I have written elsewhere, the myth that capital punishment – in this instance for an old man at the tail-end of a tortured existence in “hell-on-earth” Holman prison – provides deterrence, is an outmoded shibboleth. No mentally disturbed person intent on a bombing rampage will be dissuaded by Alabama prosecutors’ tri-decade pursuit of Moody’s execution. (As the Tuscaloosa News editorialized in a piece titled “Attempts to carry out the death penalty have gone from bad to worse”: “Thirty years is a long time to wait to die, but the State is persistent. Alabama has spent a lot of money and a lot of energy to usher out these old and infirm inmates before nature takes its course.”)

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Additionally, and arguably most important, Alabama’s unrelenting desire to exact violent vengeance for the deaths of Judge Vance and Attorney Robinson is improper because of: (1) who these champions of justice were, their respective legacies of honor, and the principles of equality their lifework embodied; and (2), because it is undesired by the people whose opinion should matter the most – the family members of the victims – who have spoken publicly about this.

A crusader for civil rights in the segregated South, Robert Robinson served on the executive board and as general counsel of the NAACP, and so it seems certain he would not favor the death penalty – for Moody, or for anybody – the practice having been hewn from the hell of slavery, subjugation and the suffering of black people. Interviewed for a 2016 essay called “Celebrating Black History: Remembering Robbie Robinson,” Robinson’s widow, Ann, “says she may never know the reason why her husband lost his life to such a heinous crime but she harbors no ill feelings towards Moody. Instead, she’s focused on keeping [her husband’s] memory alive.”

By the same token, Judge Vance’s wife Helen, who was seriously injured as a result of the bombing that killed her husband, told reporters after Moody’s 1991 conviction in federal court that, “she wouldn’t press for a state death-penalty case” (Helen Vance died in 2010). And recently, in March, Robert Vance, Jr., Judge Vance’s son and a circuit judge in Alabama, told a news reporter: “We achieved peace when [Moody] was convicted,” later saying “he’s not sure what can be gained from the execution of his father’s killer.” This ambivalence and distaste for executing an impotent, likely soon-to-die-anyway old man, would undoubtedly have been shared by his father. For as now-deceased former acclaimed death penalty attorney and law professor Michael Mello wrote about Judge Vance, for whom he clerked, in his book “Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment”: “Judge Vance personally did not believe in capital punishment; if he were a legislator he would vote against it; if he were an executive he would commute death sentences; and if he were a Supreme Court Justice, he might well hold it unconstitutional. Robert Vance’s personal opposition to capital punishment was genuine and heartfelt . . . . He did not believe that the death penalty was a proper form of punishment[.]”

Which brings us full-circle to the questions I posed earlier: Why is Alabama intent on killing an octogenarian who can no longer hurt anyone? And, who on God’s good earth will benefit from such ghastliness?

For as renowned Christian author, ethicist, and theologian Lewis Smedes once powerfully observed: “The problem with revenge is that it never evens the score. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the escalator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops.” This is why Sir Francis Bacon once counseled that “[i]n taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.”

If Alabama does not spare Mr. Moody, this time-tested wisdom, together with whatever honor and capacity for human dignity that exists within the office of Alabama’s governor, its Department of Corrections, and its Office of the Attorney General, will be lost.                  

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq

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Alabama’s Last Execution Was An Atrocity

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