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US Supreme Court clears way for execution of Alabama inmate

Jan 27, 2022, 7:02 PM | Updated: 7:41 pm
This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows death row inmate Matthew...
This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows death row inmate Matthew Reeves, who was scheduled for execution on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. Reeves was condemned for killing a man during a robbery in 1996. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)
(Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court has cleared the way for the state of Alabama to execute an inmate who contends an intellectual disability combined with the state’s inattention cost him a chance to avoid lethal injection and choose a new method.

The nation’s highest court upheld a state appeal that had asked the justices to lift a lower court order that had previously blocked prison workers from executing Matthew Reeves.

Related: Four county attorneys call for the death penalty to be repealed in Utah

Reeves was convicted of killing a driver who gave him a ride in 1996.

The state said it was preparing to execute Reeves by lethal injection on Thursday night. Reeves claimed the state failed to help him understand a form that would have let him choose a new execution method involving nitrogen.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

The U.S. Supreme Court considered Thursday whether to let Alabama execute a death row inmate who claims an intellectual disability combined with the state’s inattention cost him a chance to avoid lethal injection and choose a less “torturous,” yet untried, method.

Related: Two state lawmakers push to end death penalty in Utah

The Alabama attorney general’s office asked the justices to lift a lower court order that blocked prison workers from putting to death Matthew Reeves, who was convicted of killing a driver who gave him a ride. He celebrated after the killing at a party with blood still on his hands, evidence showed.

The defense argued that the state, in asking the court to vacate an earlier ruling so it could execute Reeves, was improperly trying to challenge a decision it had lost repeatedly in lower courts.

The state said it was preparing to execute Reeves, 43, by lethal injection at Holman Prison in case the court allowed it to proceed as scheduled at 6 p.m. CST, but the execution time passed without any word from the court.

An attorney for Reeves, John Palombi, said the defense felt hopeful the Supreme Court wouldn’t allow the execution to occur.

Related: COLD: How the Joyce Yost investigation became a death-penalty case

Reeves had visits and phone calls with his mother and sister during the day and was moved into a holding cell near the death chamber as he awaited the court decision, said deputy commissioner Jeffery Williams. Reeves, who also spoke with his lawyer by phone, declined a last meal, he said.

The state 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 refused and said a 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. Alabama appealed that decision, sending the case to the Supreme Court.

Reeves was sentenced to die for the murder of Willie Johnson, who was killed by a shotgun blast to the neck during a robbery in Selma on Nov. 27, 1996, after picking up Reeves and others on the side of a rural highway.

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.

Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union ambassador to the U.S., sent a letter both condemning Johnson’s killing and asking Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to block the execution because of Reeves’ intellectual disability claim. Ivey also has received a clemency bid from Reeves’ attorneys but did not release a decision.

While courts have upheld Reeves’ conviction, the last-minute fight to stop the execution involved his intellect, his rights under federal disability law and how the state planned to kill him.

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 hypoxia method, which hasn’t been used in the U.S., would cause death by replacing oxygen that the inmate breathes with nitrogen.

Alabama inmates had a chance to sign a form choosing either lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method in 2018 after legislators approved the use of nitrogen. But Reeves was among the inmates who didn’t fill out the form stating a preference.

A poor reader, Reeves is intellectually disabled and wasn’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.

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.

A defense expert concluded Reeves reads at a first-grade level and has 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.

An Alabama inmate who was put to death by lethal injection last year, Willie B. Smith, unsuccessfully raised claims about being intellectually unable to make the choice for nitrogen hypoxia.

 

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