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Court green-lights Alabama execution in 5-4 ruling that reverses two lower courts

A divided Supreme Court on Thursday evening allowed Alabama to execute a man who argued that the state had failed to give him proper accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act so that he could select his method of execution. In doing so, the justices overturned two lower-court rulings that had barred Alabama from performing the execution by lethal injection. The vote was 5-4, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett and the court’s three liberal justices dissenting.

The court’s brief, unexplained order cleared the way for Alabama to execute Matthew Reeves, 43. A few hours after the court issued the order, the state executed him by lethal injection.

Reeves had sought to be executed instead by nitrogen hypoxia, a relatively new method in state executions that is thought to be significantly less painful than lethal injection. Rather than receiving drugs by IV, the person is subjected to nitrogen gas, which causes them to slowly lose consciousness and then die as their blood-oxygen levels plummet.

A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit halted Reeves’ execution and prohibited the state from executing him by any method other than nitrogen gas. The five-justice majority vacated the injunction that had been in place due to those rulings.  

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a three-page dissent that was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Barrett noted that she would have left the injunction in place, but she did not sign onto Kagan’s dissent.

Kagan wrote that the majority was disregarding the findings of the district court and, in doing so, denying the deference that “the law demands.” She emphasized the extensive written record and hours of testimony and oral argument that the district court considered in blocking Reeves’ execution by lethal injection.

“The Court has no warrant to reweigh the evidence offered below,” Kagan wrote. “And it has no other basis for reversing the detailed findings the District Court made to support the injunction.”

The district court issued its injunction on Jan. 7, and the 11th Circuit upheld that injunction on Wednesday, prompting Alabama’s emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.

The Alabama legislature approved nitrogen hypoxia as a method of execution in 2018. Prisoners on death row had a 30-day window to choose the alternative method.

Reeves did not choose nitrogen hypoxia during the required period. He subsequently argued that he did not understand the “election form” that prison officials distributed to people on death row. Reeves had significant cognitive limitations, including the reading ability of an elementary-school student. He argued that the Alabama Department of Corrections violated the ADA by failing to provide an accommodation to allow him to understand the form.

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 committed “egregious errors” in focusing on evidence of Reeves’ inability to participate in the election-form program, saying that his need was not “open and obvious” to them. The state also said that the district court misweighed the harm of execution by lethal injection over nitrogen hypoxia. The state argued that Reeves’ reading difficulties — a 2.2 grade level, according to an expert witness — was not made clear to staff at the prison.

In her dissent, Kagan pointed to “unrebutted evidence” that a person needed at least an 11th-grade reading level to understand the form.

The state argued that Reeves’ claim was “a thinly disguised attempt to delay his execution by any means necessary.” Kagan noted that the lower courts had found that the state would have been ready to execute Reeves by nitrogen hypoxia “in a matter of weeks.”

Recommended Citation: Ellena Erskine, Court green-lights Alabama execution in 5-4 ruling that reverses two lower courts, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 27, 2022, 11:29 PM),