Montgomery, Alabama – A federal judge on Monday barred Alabama from executing an inmate who said the state lost his paperwork requesting an alternative to lethal injection.
U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. issued a preliminary injunction Thursday barring the state from executing Alan Miller by any method other than nitrous oxide, an untested method that Miller said he had requested but Alabama was not prepared to use. Miller was sentenced to death after being convicted of killing three people in a 1999 workplace shooting.
“Miller will likely suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is not granted because he will be deprived of the opportunity to die by the method he chose and instead will be forced to die by the method he sought to avoid and which he alleges will be painful,” Huffaker wrote. The trauma would be “the loss of his ‘ultimate dignity’ – to choose how he dies,” the judge added.
The order bars Alabama from carrying out the lethal injection, which was scheduled for Thursday. However, the state can appeal this decision. The Alabama Attorney General’s Office did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
Nitrous hypoxia is a proposed method of execution in which death is brought about by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thus depriving him or her of the oxygen needed to maintain bodily functions. Nitrogen hypoxia has been authorized by Alabama and two other states for capital punishment, but has never been used by a state to attempt to execute inmates.
When Alabama approved nitrous oxide as an alternative method of execution in 2018, state law gave inmates a short window to use it. Miller testified last week that he returned the state uniform with the nitrogen selection the same day a prison worker distributed it to inmates. He said he left it in the crack of his cell door to be picked up by a prison officer, but didn’t see who took it. Alabama state prison officials say they have no record of Miller returning the uniform and say Miller is simply trying to delay his sentence.
Huffaker wrote that he could not rule out the possibility that Miller was lying about choosing nitrogen to delay the death penalty, but said his testimony was credible. “It is likely that Miller would have chosen nitrous hypoxia in a timely manner,” the judge wrote.
The judge noted the possibility that Alabama could soon be able to use nitrogen. “From all that follows, the State intends to declare its readiness to carry out the execution by nitrogen hypoxia in the coming weeks,” the judge wrote.
The Alabama Department of Corrections told a judge last week that the state of Alabama has “completed many of the preparations necessary to carry out the execution by hypoxic nitrogen,” but is not ready to do so.
Miller, a delivery truck driver, was convicted of a 1999 workplace shooting that killed Lee Holdbrooks, Scott Yancey and Terry Jarvis in suburban Birmingham. Miller shot Holdbrooks and Yancey at the same business, then drove to another location to shoot Jarvis, evidence showed.
A defense psychiatrist said Miller was delusional and suffered from severe mental illness, but his condition was not bad enough to use as the basis for an insanity defense under state law.
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