What did the state of Alabama do to Joe Nathan James in the three hours before his execution?
This much is undisputed: In 1994, Joe Nathan James Jr. murdered Faith Hall, a mother of two he had formerly dated; in 1999, he was sentenced to death in Jefferson County, Alabama; and he was executed on July 28, 2022. Whether James ought to have been killed was and is, by contrast, deeply disputed—Hall’s family pleaded that their mercy should spare him, and the state government acted against their wishes. Also disputed is the matter of how, exactly, the Alabama Department of Corrections took James’s life. Or it was in my mind, at least, until I saw what they had done to him, engraved in his skin.
A little over a week ago, James’s body lay on a bloody shroud draped over an exam table in an Alabama morgue scarcely large enough to accommodate the three men studying the corpse. He had been dead for several days, but there was still time to discover what exactly had happened to him during the roughly three-hour period it took to—in the Department of Corrections’ telling—establish access to a vein so an execution team could deliver the lethal injection of drugs that would kill him. Despite the long delay and an unnaturally short execution, the Department of Corrections had assured media witnesses gathered to observe James’s death that “nothing out of the ordinary” had happened in the course of killing the 50-year-old. It was suspicion of that claim that led to this private autopsy.