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Opinion | Alabama apparently tortured a man. No one seems to care

The account from Joe Nathan James’ autopsy is horrifying, and no one in Alabama government is talking about it.

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Joe Nathan James struggled so mightily as Alabama Department of Corrections officials cut and stabbed and prodded his arms in a clumsy, cruel — sadistic wouldn’t be incorrect — attempt to locate a vein that James literally ripped open his own flesh as he strained against the bindings across his biceps. 

If that disgusts you, it should.  

If it makes you feel compelled to respond to the state-sanctioned torture of a human being with a “yeah but he’s a murderer,” then you’re no better than the murderer. 

And that means we have no standing — moral or otherwise — to carry out an execution of Joe Nathan James or any other murderer. 

James’ execution, and the horrific ordeal he apparently endured beforehand — facts we would never know if not for the James family and the reporting of Elizabeth Bruenig in The Atlantic — is not the first pre-execution botch by ADOC and its crack staff of not-quite-medical professionals. They also couldn’t manage to find a vein in the arms, ankles or groin of Doyle Hamm, and as Bruenig pointed out, they somehow managed to “pierce his bladder.” 

It appears, said Bruenig, who appeared on “Alabama Politics This Week Podcast,” that Alabama doesn’t require licensed medical professionals, “only trained department of corrections staff, not doctors or nurses.” (We can only say that it appears to be the case, because Alabama so closely guards its execution protocols and requirements. But some information on the procedures, and on the staff performing the duties, has seeped out over the years – primarily from attorneys and workers who have been present for the pre-execution procedures.)

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In the case of Doyle Hamm, his attorney, who was present for the placing of his IV lines, put a stop to the torture of his client when it became obvious that the “trained staff” was utterly incompetent. (Bruenig said two doctors who viewed the work of the ADOC staff on James were shocked by the incompetence to perform what is, in the medical profession, a fairly routine task, setting an IV line.)

But James was representing himself. He didn’t have an attorney present. He was alone in the back room with only ADOC staff and officials. He didn’t have anyone to intervene. 

And at some point, he apparently didn’t even have access to his own consciousness. 

ADOC officials said they “can’t confirm” if James was conscious during his execution. Witnesses and media present reported that he certainly seemed to be unconscious. 

Given what Bruenig described in her piece, I really hope he was. I truly hope that ADOC officials sedated James to the point of unconsciousness as they continued to carve him up, as though he was somehow less than human. 

According to The Atlantic, he had countless puncture wounds, apparently from the “trained staff” attempting time and again to locate veins. He also had numerous cuts along his arms, apparently from the “trained staff” performing “cutdown” procedures in an attempt to locate a vein under the skin. Then there were the gashes and tears in his skin as he strained against the restraints. And then smaller, unexplainable punctures, possibly to administer sedatives or local anesthetic. 

All of this was happening in the three-hour, skirt-measuring delay, which puzzled media witnesses and left ADOC officials stammering and issuing follow-up statements. 

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When James finally appeared in the execution chamber, he was pretty clearly unconscious. He didn’t respond at all when asked for a final statement. And one minute after the death warrant was signed, the lethal concoction of drugs began to flow into his body. 

ADOC, in the days since, has ignored numerous media inquiries and requests for further information on what exactly went wrong. Officials have declined to comment on The Atlantic’s report from James’ autopsy. 

This is not unusual behavior for ADOC. This is the same poorly run state agency – into which the citizens of this state dump tens of millions of dollars each year – that is so incompetent that it’s in the midst of a Department of Justice lawsuit because of its failures to adequately care for and police the incarcerated men and women within its walls. And through it all, ADOC has ignored media requests for information on a variety of incidents and flatly lied, according to the DOJ, in classifying deaths. 

But we do nothing. There is no outrage among the citizenry. There is no movement from our elected officials. 

Which is curious, because not too long ago I heard from many of those elected officials that life is so precious that we should force a 10-year-old to carry an incest baby to term. But here I find out they actually think it’s so worthless that they can’t be bothered to make a state agency follow laws, rules and basic decency to ensure that human beings aren’t tortured to death. 

That’s a crazy level of hypocrisy. 

At the very least, someone in authority in this state should at least suggest that ADOC explain what the hell happened to the guy. Instead of everyone pretending that this level of secrecy — about ending a human’s life, no less — is just standard practice. Because it’s not. 

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Alabama has open records laws, as toothless as they might be, and the public in this state has every right to know what its government officials are doing. Especially when they’re carrying out the single most important and controversial act that our government performs.  

But what I fear is this: No one is demanding answers because they already know them. They know that ADOC botched another one. They know that the “trained staff” is inadequate. They know that there’s a perverse level of callousness and indifference to human suffering that permeates ADOC. They know that Alabama’s prisons are hell holes of death and misery that have no place in a country as advanced as ours. And they know that Joe Nathan James was tortured. 

And if all of that is so, they know that there is only one question left: Who are we — as the people of the State of Alabama — to stand in judgment of anyone if we’re willing to sit quietly by and condone the unimaginable torture of another human? 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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