01 February 2022 :
Matthew Reeves, 43, Black, was executed on January 27. He was pronounced dead at 9:24 p.m. CST.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday evening tossed out a decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled Wednesday that a district judge didn’t abuse his discretion in ruling that the state couldn’t execute Reeves by any method other than nitrogen hypoxia, which has never been used. The Supreme Court voted 5-4. Reeves was executed at Alabama's Holman prison less than two hours later.
The lower court had agreed to block the execution because Reeves sought to be executed by an alternate method: nitrogen gas. But the justices granted Alabama's request to reinstate the execution in an after-hours order Thursday.
Reeves was convicted of capital murder in 1998 for the Nov. 27, 1996 killing of Willie Johnson during a robbery.
After the dying man was robbed of $360, Reeves, then 18, went to a party where he danced and mimicked Johnson’s death convulsions, authorities said. A witness said Reeves’ hands were still stained with blood at the celebration, a court ruling said.
While courts have upheld Reeves’ conviction, the last-minute fight by his lawyers seeking to stop the execution involved his intellect, his rights under federal disability law and how the state planned to kill him.
Jon Palombi, an attorney representing Reeves, called the Supreme Court's decision "disheartening and disappointing," writing in a statement that "the immense authority of the Supreme Court should be used to protect citizens, not to strip them of their rights without explanation."
"Matthew Reeves is unquestionably intellectually disabled and unquestionably functionally illiterate," the statement said. "The State’s own expert measured Mr. Reeves’ IQ as 68, well below the cut-off to determine mental disability. Because of his limitations, Mr. Reeves could not read or understand a written form provided to him by the State, requiring him to choose his method of execution."
In 2018, Alabama death row inmates had a chance to sign a form choosing either lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method after legislators approved the use of nitrogen. But Reeves was among the inmates who didn’t fill out the form stating a preference.
Alabama switched from the electric chair to lethal injection after 2002, and in 2018 legislators approved the use of another method, nitrogen hypoxia, amid defense challenges to injections and shortages of chemicals needed for the procedure. The new method would cause death by replacing oxygen that the inmate breathes with nitrogen.
A poor reader and intellectually disabled, Reeves asn’t capable of making such a decision without assistance that should have been provided under the American With Disabilities Act, his lawyers argued. A prison worker who gave Reeves a form didn't offer aid to help him understand, they said.
Last June, prisoners on death row were marched out of their cells and into the prison yard at Alabama’s William C. Holman Correctional Facility.
There they heard a surprising presentation. They were told that they could take advantage of a law enacted in March, 2018 authorizing nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method. They could thus choose the method the state would use to kill them.
If they wanted to opt for nitrogen hypoxia, they had to inform the prison warden “in writing.”
Last week Alabama announced that it expects to be able to start executing the death row inmates who chose nitrogen suffocation “within months.”
On the June day when Reeves was offered his choice, it was not clear whether officials were in fact required even to notify the people on death row about their right to opt out of dying by lethal injection.
Nevertheless, Cynthia Stewart, the Holman warden, did so anyway. She ordered that each death row inmate be given a form to indicate their preferred execution method. If they did not fill out or return it, they would waive the choice of nitrogen hypoxia.
Death row inmates were told they had 5 days to return the request form if they wanted to avoid execution by lethal injection. But the form they were given was almost incomprehensible because of its dense legalese.
Because of his intellectual disability, Reeves did not understand what he was being asked to do. He ultimately sued, claiming that the state had failed to discharge its duty to provide a reasonable accommodation for him under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
With Reeves contending he would have chosen nitrogen hypoxia over a “torturous” lethal injection had he comprehended the form, the defense filed suit asking a court to halt the lethal injection. U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker, Jr. blocked execution plans, ruling that Reeves had a good chance of winning the claim under the disabilities law. The state had previously asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift a lower court injunction and allow the execution, but the panel on Wednesday had refused. Alabama then appealed that decision, sending the case to the nation's highest court.
A defense expert concluded Reeves had a first grade reading level and the language competency of someone as young as 4, but the state disagreed that Reeves had a disability that would prevent him from understanding his options.
Reeves becomes the 1st condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Alabama and the 69th overall since the state resumed capital punishment in 1983.
Reeves becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA, and the 1,542nd overall since the nation resumed executions on Jan. 17, 1977.