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Governor signs execution by nitrogen bill into law

Two other states have nitrogen hypoxia listed as a method of execution in the state law books, but Alabama would be the first to offer it as an option to the condemned

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Chip Brownlee

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Gov. Kay Ivey has signed a piece of legislation into law that would authorize the use of nitrogen gas as a method for executions, which could make Alabama the first state in the country to offer that method as an alternative to lethal injection.

The bill, SB272, which was passed out of the Senate last month and approved by the House Wednesday by a vote of 75 to 23, received the governor’s signature Thursday. It was sponsored by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose.

As the bill becomes law, the state may soon add a third, untested option for death-row inmates deciding how they want their lives taken from them: a gas mask or gas chamber filled with pure nitrogen gas.

While lethal injection has been the primary method of execution used in Alabama since 2002, the state’s electric chair, known as Yellow Mama, is still sitting in an attic waiting in the case an inmate was to decide they preferred that method of execution — or if lethal injection was ever ruled unconstitutional or drugs needed to perform the execution became unavailable.

The bill would add nitrogen hypoxia as a third option, giving inmates the choice to choose that method of execution were they to desire it. It would also become another backup if lethal injection was invalidated or unavailable, a possibility that has increasingly worried death penalty proponents.

Two other states have nitrogen hypoxia listed as a method of execution in the state law books, but Alabama would be the first to offer it as an option to the condemned, though lethal injection would remain the default method. Other states, Mississippi and Oklahoma, would only use nitrogen executions in the case of lethal injection being ruled unconstitutional or the drugs becoming unavailable.

But the method has never before been tested on humans and is really only a scientific concept that is expected to be painless. Pittman has said the method would need testing before being implemented, and the Department of Corrections has given no indication of what the process of implementation might look like.

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“The Department of Corrections will follow the law of the state and adhere to the protocols and method of an execution as ordered by the Alabama Supreme Court,” the Department of Corrections said in a statement.

The Attorney General’s Office and the governor declined to comment on this story, referring questions to the Department of Corrections.

Lethal injection was once the new method of execution believed to be a humane advance, but it has in recent years been questioned by court challenges and public debate after several botched executions left inmates in apparent pain or discomfort as they died.

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In 2016, Ronald Bert Smith Jr., who had been convicted of the 1994 murder of a convenience store clerk, coughed, gagged and heaved for 13 minutes after staff administered the three-drug cocktail used in executions. He was eventually pronounced dead 34 minutes later, according to an Associated Press Report.

Late last month, another Alabama death row inmate became the subject of a botched execution. A federal judge has since ordered Alabama prison officials to retain all evidence related to the execution. Medical professionals performing the execution were unable to locate a vein on the inmate, Doyle Lee Hamm, 61, over the course of more than two hours.

His attorney later wrote in a blog post that a medical exam after the execution found that personnel almost certainly punctured his bladder, because he urinated blood the next day, and probably punctured his femoral artery because he gushed blood.

“He has pain going from the lower abdomen to the upper thigh,” the attorney, Bernard Harcourt, wrote. “He is limping badly now and terribly sore.”

This new method of execution, which has never been used in the United States before, replaces the oxygen in a prisoner’s available air supply with nitrogen, resulting in death within minutes.

Pittman has said nitrogen executions could be more humane.

“There’s a debate about the death penalty and whether that should be a punishment for certain crimes, but that is a separate debate,” Pittman said when the Senate passed the bill. “This is about the method, and what is the most humane and what can allow that sentence to be carried out.”

Death-row facilities across the country have increasingly had difficulty finding the drugs needed to perform a lethal injection execution as drug manufacturers began objecting to the use of their products in executions.

Though the law doesn’t specify how, the death-row inmate, were he or she to choose nitrogen hypoxia, could be placed in either a sealed chamber or wear a gas mask. As the oxygen in the air is depleted and replaced with a nitrogen, the result is unconsciousness, coma and then death.

Nitrogen hypoxia has increasingly been discussed as an alternative method of execution as the availability and constitutionality of lethal injection drugs — specifically the first sedative in the cocktail, Midazolam — has come into question.

Within a given time period, inmates could inform the Department of Corrections in writing that they would rather die by nitrogen hypoxia.

Proponents of nitrogen hypoxia and some researchers suggest a lack of oxygen is not what causes painful asphyxiation and nitrogen hypoxia would be painless because the person would still be able to breathe regularly until they passed out. The natural composition of air is about 78 percent nitrogen already.

The method has been used for veterinary euthanasia, but the American Veterinary Medical Association has recommended sedatives be administered to larger animals as a way of preventing any discomfort.

However, the method of execution the governor has now approved has never been tested on humans, and it’s never been used in capital punishment throughout the rest of the world, either.

Pittman, the bill’s sponsor, has said there have been examples of accidental deaths caused by humans being in a nitrogen-rich environment without realizing it. Other have used nitrogen to end their own lives, he said.

It would likely need to be tested before being implemented, but there’s no indication of what that testing would look like and how long it might take.

 

Chip Brownlee is a political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Health

Alabama reports record-breaking 2,164 new COVID-19 cases

Thursday’s number of new cases hit 2,164 and blew past the previous daily record set on July 3 by 406 cases.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Thirty-two percent of the state’s 48,588 cumulative confirmed cases have been added within the last two weeks. (APR GRAPHIC)

New COVID-19 cases in Alabama on Thursday jumped by nearly double from the day before, and for the first time broke 2,000 in a single day, according to the latest data from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Thursday’s number of new cases hit 2,164 and blew past the previous daily record set on July 3 by 406 cases. Both the seven-day and 14-day rolling average of new daily cases in Alabama were also at record highs Thursday. 

Thirty-two percent of the state’s 48,588 cumulative confirmed cases have been added within the last two weeks. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health did not publish Wednesday an update to the total number of tests performed, which throws off the day’s figures for the percentage of tests that are positive, but on average, over the last week, the state’s seven-day rolling average of percent positivity has roughly 15 percent. 

Public health experts say the percent positivity should be at or below 5 percent — otherwise there isn’t enough testing being done and cases are going undetected. 

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Along with surging new cases, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized on Wednesday was higher than it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic. On Wednesday 1,110 coronavirus patients were being treated in state hospitals, which was the fourth straight day of record current hospitalizations. 

UAB Hospital’s COVID-19 Intensive care units were nearing their existing capacity Tuesday. The hospital has both a COVID ICU and a COVID acute care unit designated to keep patients separated from those who don’t have the virus, but it has more space in other non-COVID units should it need to add additional bed space.

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Hospitals in Madison County this week are also seeing a surge of COVID-19 patients. Paul Finley, the mayor of the city of Madison, told reporters Wednesday that local hospitals were reporting record numbers.

Hospitals there were at 80 to 90 percent capacity.

“Our ambulances yesterday had their greatest number of runs since this started,” said Crestwood Hospital CEO Dr. Pam Hudson on Wednesday, adding that in about 20 percent of calls staff is having to wear full personal protective equipment. “That indicates that they are working with patients who have symptoms that could be compatible with COVID.”

Meanwhile, Madison County set a new daily record, adding 286 cases Thursday, the first time the county has surpassed 200 cases a day. The county was largely spared early on in the pandemic, with low case counts and low death rates, but roughly 42 percent of Madison County’s total case count since March has been reported in the last week as 803 new cases have been added.

Jefferson County and Madison County, over the last week, have accounted for 26 percent of the state’s new cases.

Jefferson County led the state in the most new cases Thursday with 343 and has added 1,498 cases in the last week. The county’s total cases increased by 33 percent from last week, and stood at 6,030 confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday.

While Jefferson County and Madison County are seeing the state’s most intense increases, other large counties including Shelby County, Baldwin County and Tuscaloosa County have also seen record increases and rising percent positive rates.

At least 81 people have died from COVID-19 in the last week, and 162 people have died in the last two weeks.

At least 1,042 people have died from COVID-19 since March, and at least 26 other deaths are listed as “probable” COVID-19 deaths.

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Elections

Congresswoman Martha Roby endorses Jeff Coleman

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Congressional candidate Jeff Coleman. (CAMPAIGN)

Congresswoman Martha Roby endorsed Jeff Coleman for Congress Thursday. “I fully support Jeff Coleman to be our next Congressman,” Roby said. “Jeff Coleman is a businessman who supports cutting government regulation and lowering taxes to help grow a strong economy. Jeff strongly supports our men and women serving in uniform, as well as our veterans.”

She continued, “The Second District needs someone who will support our interests right here in southeast Alabama, particularly our farmers. Jeff will do just that. He’ll get results for Alabama.”

“I am humbled and honored to receive this strong endorsement from Representative Roby. She has been a staunch supporter of our military men and women, as well as our farmers. I am looking forward to continuing her legacy of fighting for our conservative Alabama values, protecting the family farm, and fighting to ensure our veterans and active-duty personnel have all the resources they need,” Coleman said of the endorsement.

Coleman has now been endorsed by 10 mayors, multiple business associations in the state, the U.S. Chamber, and Roby. Coleman finished the Republican Primary on March 3 with 38 percent of the vote — 18 points ahead of his closest challenger.

Coleman has never run for public office and touts a 35-year successful business career.

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Elections

Secretary of state says office will assist voters in complaints if local authorities punish voters without masks

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told the Alabama Political Reporter that all 1,980 polling places will be open on Tuesday for in-person voting if a voter chooses to cast their ballot in person.

COVID-19 has been a paramount concern for people across the state and citizens have to deal with a number of business, Church and government office closures since March, but Merrill insisted that voters will be able to vote in either the Republican or Democratic Party runoffs on Tuesday at the polling place they are assigned.

A number of cities and counties are requiring masks whenever anyone goes out in any public place and government offices and businesses are refusing service to persons who do not have a mask or who refuse to wear one.

Merrill told APR that the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Scott Harris and other public health authorities are suggesting that you should wear a mask when you go out. Many polling places will provide them to voters that need them, but wearing a mask is not required to vote.

“There are only five requirements to vote in Alabama: You have to be 18 years of age. You have to be a citizen, You have to be a resident of Alabama, You must not have been convicted of an act of moral turpitude that has taken away your voting rights, and you must have a valid photo ID,” Merrill told APR. “When you meet those requirements you can vote in the state of Alabama.”

When asked whether voters in those jurisdictions with face mask requirements have to wear masks when at the polls, Merrill said, “I don’t think anybody at the local level is trying to prevent people from voting.

Merrill said if localities place police or other law enforcement outside polls and attempt to ticket those who try to enter or exit without the required mask his office would get involved.

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“If they want to try to do that, we will assist the voter in filing a lawsuit on infringement of their civil rights,” Merrill said.

Public health authorities are urging that everyone wear masks or cloth face coverings to protect themselves from becoming infected with the coronavirus and to avoid spreading the virus to others. Dr. Anthony Fauci told the Alabama press corps Tuesday that 20 to 40 percent of people infected with the virus have no symptoms and don’t event know that they are infected.

Thursday is the last day to apply for an absentee ballot to participate in the Tuesday, July 14 party primary runoff election. The close of business Thursday is the last day to apply for an absentee ballot. The last day to return those completed absentee ballots is the close of business on Monday.

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Voters with a health concern due to the possibility of getting or transmitting the coronavirus may obtain an absentee ballot. The voter will still have to check a reason for asking for the absentee ballot. If the reason is fear of the coronavirus, mark that there is a health reason for the application. You will be allowed to vote absentee. Remember to fill out all the paperwork completely and to mail or return the ballot on time.

In the Republican primary runoff, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville and former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions are running for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate. Judge Beth Kellum faces challenger Will Smith for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.

There is no statewide Democratic primary runoff races, but in the 1st Congressional District, James Averhart and Kiani Gardner are running for the Democratic nomination for Congress.

On the Republican side, former State Sen. Bill Hightower, R-Mobile, and Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl are running for the Republican nomination for Congress.

In Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, former State Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise, faces Dothan businessman Jeff Coleman. There are also a number of local races being decided in primary runoffs on Tuesday.

Notably in Etowah County, the revenue commissioner’s race is a runoff between State Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, and Jeff Overstreet for the Republican nomination.

In Jefferson County, State Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, faces Eyrika Parker in the Democratic primary runoff for county treasurer.

If either Nordgren or Scott win the local offices they seek, that will lead to a special election for what would become open seats in the Alabama House of Representatives.

The polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and close at 7 p.m. A valid photo ID is required to participate in any Alabama election.

Absentee ballot applications are available online.

On Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported that 25 more Alabamians have died from COVID-19, raising the state death toll from the global pandemic to 1,032. Also, on Wednesday, another 1,162 Alabamians learned that they were infected with the novel strain of the coronavirus, raising the number of cases in the state to 46,424.

Only about 9 percent of the state has been tested at this point in time.

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Elections

Sessions says that he will never stop fighting for law enforcement officers

Brandon Moseley

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Jeff Sessions testifies before a Congressional committe. (CSPAN)

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Sessions said on social media that he will “never stop fighting” for law enforcement officers. This was in response to the Saturday slaying of Ohio police officer Anthony Dia.

“We must end the violence against police,” Sessions said. “The last words of Officer Anthony Dia before he died on Saturday was ‘Tell my family I loved them.’”

“The disrespect and even attacks on our courageous law enforcement officers have reached a totally unacceptable level,” Sessions continued. “It is immoral and insane.”

Sessions prioritized good relations with law enforcement while he was U.S. attorney general.

“I understand how difficult their job is and how important it is for the peace and safety of our people,” Sessions said. ”I will never stop fighting for them. Let us remember Officer Dia and pledge that we will not forget his sacrifice.”

Toledo Police Officer Anthony Dia was 26-years old when he responded to a call about an intoxicated man in a store’s parking lot. When he “approached the male to check his safety,” the man turned around and fired a single bullet from a handgun, police said, citing witnesses account.

“He bled out, pretty much. They did what they could with lifesaving measures, but there was nothing they could do,” Dia’s widow Jayme told the Toledo Blade newspaper. “The last thing he said over the radio was, ‘Tell my family I love them.’ He lived for his family, and he loved, just loved, being a police officer.”

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American law enforcement has come under heavy criticism by politicians, the media and the public alike following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by the Minneapolis Police Department.

Sessions served in the Senate from 1997 to 2017, when he was confirmed as U.S. attorney general in the Trump administration. Sessions is also a former U.S. attorney, Alabama attorney general and assistant U.S. attorney.

Following his service as U.S. attorney for both the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Sessions was chairman of the Alabama Republican Party. Sessions is a former U.S. Army reserve officer. He has a bachelor’s degree from Huntingdon College in Montgomery and a law degree from the University of Alabama School of Law.

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Sessions and his wife, Mary Blackshear Sessions, started the first college Republican club at Huntingdon College. They have three children as well as grandchildren. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was born outside of Camden in Wilcox County in 1946. Sessions is a native Alabamian. He is 73 years old.

Sessions is running in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff. His opponent is former Auburn University head football Coach Tommy Tuberville. The winner of the GOP nomination will face incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, in the Nov. 3 general election. Defeating Jones is considered critical for Republicans efforts to try to retain control of the Senate.

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