Judge blocks next lethal injection in Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — A federal judge on Monday prevented Alabama from executing an inmate who claims the state lost his papers requesting an alternative to lethal injection.

U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker, Jr. issued a preliminary injunction to stop the state from executing Alan Miller Thursday by any method other than nitrogen hypoxia, an untested method that Miller says he requested but the Alabama is not ready to use it. Miller was sentenced to death after being found guilty of murdering three people in a workplace shooting in 1999.

“Miller will likely suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not issued, as he will be deprived of the ability to die by the method he has chosen and will instead be forced to die by a method he has sought to avoid and which he says will be painful,” Huffaker wrote. The hurt will be “the loss of his ‘final dignity’ – to choose how he will die,” Judge added.

The ruling prevents Alabama from proceeding with the lethal injection that had been set for Thursday. However, the state could appeal the decision. The Alabama attorney general’s office did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Nitrogen hypoxia is a proposed method of execution in which death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thereby depriving them of the oxygen needed to maintain bodily functions. Nitrogen hypoxia has been authorized by Alabama and two other states for executions, but has never been used by any state to attempt to put an inmate to death.

When Alabama approved nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative method of execution in 2018, state law gave inmates a brief window to designate it as their method of execution. Miller testified last week that he returned a state form selecting nitrogen the same day it was distributed to inmates by a prison employee. He said he left it in the slot in his cell door for a prison worker to pick it up, but did not see who picked it up. Alabama prison officials say they have no record of Miller returning the form and have argued that Miller was simply trying to delay his execution.

Huffaker wrote that he could not rule out the possibility that Miller lied about nitrogen selection in order to delay his impending execution, but said his testimony was credible. “It is very likely that Miller chose nitrogen hypoxia in due time,” Judge wrote.

The judge noted the possibility that Alabama could soon use nitrogen. “From all that appears, the state intends to announce that it is ready to carry out executions by nitrogen hypoxia in the coming weeks,” the judge wrote.

The Alabama Department of Corrections told the judge last week that Alabama “has completed many of the preparations necessary to conduct executions by nitrogen hypoxia” but is not ready to implement it.

Miller, a delivery truck driver, was convicted of the 1999 workplace shootings that killed Lee Holdbrooks, Scott Yancy and Terry Jarvis in suburban Birmingham. Miller shot Holdbrooks and Yancy in one business, then drove to another location to shoot Jarvis, evidence shows.

A defense psychiatrist said Miller was delusional and suffered from severe mental illness, but his condition was not serious enough to form the basis of an insanity defense under state law.

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