Alabama resumes executions as appeals court fails to intervene

Alabama resumes executions as appeals court fails to intervene

A Montgomery, Ala.-based federal appeals court has refused to delay the execution of a state prisoner, even as his lawyers contended his conviction might be invalid in light of a recent Supreme Court decision and argued the execution ought to await the outcome of a lawsuit that could find executions in the state unconstitutionally cruel.

Less than two days after the Jan. 20 ruling, Christopher Eugene Brooks, 43, was executed by lethal injection at an Alabama state prison.

Lawyers for Brooks, sentenced to death for rape and murder in 1992 (crimes to which he consistently maintained his innocence), had sought an emergency stay in the 11th Circuit. They argued Alabama’s death penalty sentencing method may be invalid, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 12 decision in Hurst v. Florida, which ruled 8-1 that Florida’s sentencing method violated the Sixth Amendment’s due process guarantee by not having a jury decide every factor needed for imposing a death penalty.

Under Florida’s newly-invalidated procedures, after conviction for a felony for which the death penalty might be imposed, a separate post-conviction proceeding determines whether the death sentence is warranted. With the sentencing judge presiding, in the hearing the jury delivers a non-binding “advisory sentence,” but the judge then weighs mitigating or aggravating factors and decides whether the death sentence is justified.

Lawyers for the prisoner contend Alabama’s sentence procedures are so similar to Florida’s that they may also run afoul of the Supreme Court’s recent decision (the Alabama Supreme Court has already refused to stay execution on that account). Brooks’ lawyers unsuccessfully sought to have that decision reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the 11th Circuit Brooks case, Alabama’s lawyers argued the state’s death sentencing procedures were different enough from Florida’s to escape being affected by the Hurst decision because although like in Florida, an Alabama judge weighs aggravating or mitigating factors independently from the jury, in Alabama for the death sentence to be imposed, the jury must also unanimously find an aggravating factor (such as the murder occurred in connection with a kidnapping, robbery or rape), either when finding the defendant guilty or during sentencing.

Executions have been halted for over two years in Alabama, due to difficulty obtaining lethal drugs and related lawsuits. The Brooks execution, which would be the first in Alabama since then, will use a combination of three drugs, starting with the sedative midazolam, followed by two other drugs that shut down lung and heart functioning.

Brooks had joined a lawsuit, expected to be heard this spring, which questions the effectiveness of the sedative in rendering a prisoner insensible to the effects of the two lethal drugs. An attempt by inmates in Oklahoma to block the use of midazolam for executions there fell short in the U.S. Supreme Court last July, but the high court’s divided opinion in the Oklahoma case did not, for procedural reasons, end the challenge from Alabama.

The 11th Circuit dismissed Brooks’ challenge to the use of the three-drug combination as cruel and unusual punishment, saying that he had delayed too long in bringing it, and had also failed to meet the requirement in such cases of showing that a different execution method was available that was less likely to inflict severe pain.