Court approves Alabama enforcement in 5-4 ruling that overturns two lower courts
January 27, 2022
On Thursday night, a divided Supreme Court allowed Alabama to execute a man who argued the state failed to provide him with proper accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act so he could choose the method of execution. In doing so, the judge overturned two lower court rulings that barred Alabama from carrying out the death penalty by lethal injection. The vote was 5-4, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett and the court’s three liberal justices dissenting.
Reeves had attempted to execute by nitrogen hypoxia, a relatively new state method of execution that was considered far less painful than lethal injection. Instead of taking the drug intravenously, the person received nitrogen, which caused them to slowly lose consciousness and then die as blood oxygen levels dropped.
A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit stopped Reeves’ execution and barred the state from executing him by any means other than nitrogen. A majority of the five justices reversed the injunctions that took effect as a result of those rulings.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote a three-page dissent, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Barrett noted that she would keep the ban, but she did not sign Kagan’s dissent.
Kagan wrote that most ignored the district court’s findings and in doing so denied the “respect required by the law.” She highlighted the extensive written record and hours of testimony and oral arguments the district court considered in preventing Reeves from being executed by lethal injection.
“There is no reason for the court to re-weight the evidence presented below,” Kagan wrote. “And it has no other basis to overturn the detailed findings of the district court in support of the injunction.”
The district court issued the injunction Jan. 7 and the 11th Circuit upheld the injunction on Wednesday, prompting Alabama to file an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Alabama legislature approved nitrogen hypoxia as a method of execution in 2018. Death row has a 30-day window to choose an alternative.
Reeves did not opt ??for nitrogen hypoxia during the requested period. He then argued that he did not understand the “election forms” that prison officials handed out to death row. Reeves has significant cognitive limitations, including elementary school reading. He argued that the Alabama Department of Corrections violated the ADA by failing to facilitate his understanding of the forms.
Reeves was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Willie Johnson when Reeves was 18.
Alabama told the Supreme Court that the district court made a “serious error” in focusing on evidence that Reeves was unable to participate in the electoral-form plan, saying his needs were not “overt and obvious” to them. The state also said the district court had wrongly weighed the dangers of lethal injection to nitrogen hypoxia. The state argues that Reeves’ dyslexia — a grade 2.2, according to an expert witness — was not made clear to prison staff.
In her dissent, Kagan pointed to “irrefutable evidence” that a person needs at least an 11th-grade reading level to understand the tables.
The state has argued that Reeves’ claims were “delayed in any way necessary to execute his nearly disguised attempts.” Kagan noted that a lower court had found that the state was ready to execute Reeves through hypoxia “within a few weeks.”