The Alabama state flag superimposed over a black-and-white photo of Joe Nathan James Jr.
John J. Custer

Dead to Rights

What did the state of Alabama do to Joe Nathan James in the three hours before his execution?

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a collection of work by Elizabeth Bruenig that was the finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
The Alabama state flag superimposed over a black-and-white photo of Joe Nathan James Jr.

Listen to this article

Listen to more stories on hark

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.

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.

By the time I arrived at the morgue where Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University and a lethal-injection opponent, had agreed to join a local independent pathologist named Boris Datnow and his assistant, Jay Glass, James’s body had undergone days of postmortem swelling in cool storage. Datnow would later caution me about the difficulty of our inquiry—the edema had diminished our chances of locating punctures left by needles during the execution—though my initial impression of James was of someone whose hands and wrists had been burst by needles, in every place one can bend or flex. That and the carnage farther up one arm told a radically different tale than the narrative offered by the Alabama Department of Corrections, even to the naked eye. Something terrible had been done to James while he was strapped to a gurney behind closed doors without so much as a lawyer present to protest his treatment or an advocate to observe it, yet the state had insisted that nothing unusual had taken place. Approached for comment about the allegations contained in this article, Department of Corrections officials declined to speak with me.

Obdurate disregard for genuine inquiries seems to be the state’s disposition where capital punishment is concerned. In the months prior to James’s execution, Faith Hall’s brother Helvetius and her two daughters, Terrlyn and Toni, lobbied Governor Kay Ivey to spare the man’s life, repeatedly stating that they had forgiven James and had no desire to see him killed. (The Halls, like James, are Black.) Nevertheless, the execution, scheduled for 6 p.m., went ahead unhindered, with Ivey explaining her office’s disregard for the victim’s family’s wishes as a matter of principle.

When members of the media who had been selected to witness James’s execution arrived for their transport to William C. Holman Correctional Facility’s death chamber, two female journalists, the Associated Press’s Kim Chandler and’s Ivana Hrynkiw, were subjected to dress-code checks by prison staff, who demanded that Hrynkiw change from a skirt into a borrowed pair of men’s fishing waders and sneakers before allowing her to proceed as a witness. By the time everyone was shod and apparreled to the DOC’s specifications and loaded onto prison transport vans, it was 6:33 p.m. (I had contacted the agency about applying to witness James’s execution, but had been ignored.)

And then, media witnesses reported, they waited—for hours. Prisoners on Holman’s death row held up signs—a captive message from a captive audience—stating that the victim’s family didn’t want James dead, that this was a murder. Time passed, then more: Finally, around 9 o’clock, roughly three hours after the scheduled time of execution, media witnesses were led into the execution chamber.

I have witnessed two executions, and in both cases the men were alert and responsive to corrections staff in the moments prior to lethal injection. After all, multidrug cocktails including paralytics and sedatives only begin to affect a person’s consciousness after administration. Before the injections begin, the men I’ve seen die have spoken at least briefly of love and regret. But James neither responded to his death warrant nor gave any last words—not even a refusal to offer a final statement, per Kim Chandler. In fact, witnesses, including Chandler and Hrynkiw, reported that James’s eyes stayed closed during the entire procedure, flickering only in his death throes, and that he remained unresponsive from beginning to end. His death warrant was read at 9:03 p.m., the lethal drugs began to flow at 9:04, and he was declared dead, finally, at 9:27.

What happened to James during the three-hour interval between his scheduled execution and his time of death, and why was he apparently unconscious in the execution chamber? The Alabama DOC gave the gathered reporters no explanation for the long delay, or for his strange demeanor in the chamber. Pressed for an explanation by journalists on the scene that night, John Hamm, the corrections department commissioner, said, in somewhat scattered fashion, that he couldn’t “overemphasize this process. We’re carrying out the ultimate punishment, the execution of an inmate. And we have protocols and we’re very deliberate in our process, and making sure everything goes according to plan. So if that takes a few minutes or a few hours, that’s what we do.”

Subsequent official statements only confused matters further. For instance, DOC spokesperson Kelly Betts wrote in an email to members of the media that “ADOC’s execution team strictly followed the established protocol. The protocol states that if the veins are such that intravenous access cannot be provided, the team will perform a central line procedure. Fortunately, this was not necessary and with adequate time, intravenous access was established.” Eventually, the DOC conceded that it could not confirm whether James had been “fully conscious” during the lethal-injection procedure, though it assured journalists that he had not been sedated.

Aside from the DOC, nobody seemed especially satisfied with that account of events. Jim Ransom, the last of many defense attorneys to represent James, was especially disturbed when he heard that his client hadn’t responded to the warden’s prompt to offer his last words. “That sent up red flags. It didn’t ring true,” Ransom told me the night of the autopsy. “Joe always had something to say. Joe would’ve said no,” Ransom insisted, if he didn’t have anything to say: “That’s Joe.” (Ransom told me that James had asked that he not be present the night of the execution.) But somehow during the three-and-a-half-hour delay, James had transformed from a devout Muslim and dedicated jailhouse lawyer who, in Ransom’s telling, “wanted to fight ’em to the very last minute” into someone mute and absent, with neither an apology for his victim’s family nor an utterance of gratitude for their efforts to save his life.

I spoke with Helvetius, Hall’s brother, in the days after the autopsy. He told me that he wasn’t especially shocked by James’s silence, but that he was appalled by the state’s. In the weeks leading up to the execution, Helvetius said, “Nobody called us, nobody reached out to us, nobody—nobody—got in touch with us.” Toni, Faith’s youngest daughter, who was a toddler when her mother was killed, told me she had repeatedly asked the district attorney’s office to let her speak with James prior to his execution, only to be refused. “There could have been a conversation to heal a little 3-year-old’s heart,” she said, pausing to swallow tears. But nobody in any position of power, aside from Alabama State Representative Juandalynn Givan, who lobbied the state on behalf of the family, seemed particularly interested in what would bring her or her family peace, much less a sense of closure. They simply wanted James dead.

A clinician of 27 years, Joel Zivot worked mainly in intensive-care units and operating rooms before investigating the disappearance of sodium thiopental (an erstwhile anesthetic recruited into lethal-injection cocktails) from the American market circa 2010, due to capital punishment. Zivot’s curiosity about the vanishing of a good drug eventually led him to research lethal-injection protocols, at which point he became a vocal critic of the death penalty’s use of medical means for lethal ends. Now, having published papers on the bioethical hazards of physician participation in lethal injection and having testified about his research into the end-of-life suffering evinced by the autopsy reports of executed prisoners, Zivot has become a familiar presence in legal challenges to executions nationwide. Friendships across the anti-capital-punishment advocacy domain made him especially well placed to set up the independent autopsy of Joe James. Within two days of the execution, Zivot had heard rumors about errors, and he began working in earnest to probe the man’s death.

Before any exam could take place, James’s next of kin would have to agree. I connected Zivot with Ransom to reach out to James’s family. “I had my suspicions about the time lapse,” Ransom explained, “and I feel like the state needs to be held accountable when they mess up.” With that in mind, he called Hakim James, one of Joe Nathan James’s brothers, whose mother had charged him with handling his brother’s final affairs, and asked if he would agree to submit James’s body to an independent autopsy.

Hakim considered, then gave his consent. “I felt it needed to be done,” he told me later, even though it came at the end of an already protracted, taxing process. “I felt that it was important.”

Then there was the matter of locating an independent pathologist willing to take on the case, and finding the money to pay them. I suggested that Zivot reach out to Reprieve, a nonprofit civil-rights organization made up of lawyers, advocates, and investigators who defend the rights of people facing extreme abuses. Maya Foa, an executive director at Reprieve USdirector, agreed that an independent autopsy ought to happen—quickly.

“Lethal injection was developed to mask the very torture it inflicts,” she explained over text message, “and when a prisoner is executed in secret, the only person who can tell the world what really happened is dead. We’ve seen time and again states suppressing or delaying autopsy results following executions that appear to have gone disastrously wrong. Autopsies help tell the story that the body leaves behind.” Reprieve agreed to fund the autopsy through its newly launched Forensic Justice Initiative. By Tuesday morning, Zivot was en route to Alabama from Atlanta and I was making my way from my home in New England; we met in Birmingham, and then went together to the funeral home where the autopsy was to be performed.

The human body opened along “a standard Y-incision”—across the breast and down the center of the abdomen—was unmistakably that of Joe Nathan James. His head was encased in a clear plastic bag, laid to one side, and his face was slack and ashen. The state of Alabama had already wrought its work twice upon James: First in the execution itself, and then again in the autopsy carried out at the Mobile medical examiner’s office immediately after, the findings of which would not be made available for a minimum of 90 days, in the optimistic estimation of local capital defenders. And while the array of viscera and the accordion-style slicing of organs was appalling in its bloody gratuitousness—James had been, according to Datnow, a generally healthy man, prior to his execution—it was the story his flesh told about his lengthy and painful death that lent the scene its awful vertigo. In a little green storefront funeral parlor in Birmingham lay the visual record of everything the government can do to you, provided that you, like James in his final hours, have no counsel present, no wealth to your name, and no contact with the outside world.

James, it appeared, had suffered a long death. The state seems to have attempted to insert IV catheters into each of his hands just above the knuckles, resulting in broad smears of violet bruising. Then it looked as though the execution team had tried again, forcing needles into each of his wrists, with the same bleeding beneath the skin and the same indigo mottling around the puncture wounds. On the inside of James’s left arm, another puncture site, another pool of deep bruising, and then, a scant distance above, a strange, jagged incision, at James’s inner elbow. The laceration met another cut at an obtuse angle. That longer, narrower slice was part of a parallel pair, which matched a fainter, shallower set of parallel cuts. Underneath the mutilated portion of James’s arm was what appeared to be yet another puncture—a noticeable crimson pinprick in the center of a radiating blue-green bruise. Other, less clear marks littered his arm as well.

Mark Edgar, a pathologist at the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, reviewed my photos from James’s autopsy and concluded in an email that all of the wounds on James’s arm happened before death, judging by the redness along the edges of the wounds. One among them—the deeper, wider cut at James’s elbow—suggested, in Edgar’s view, “that the inmate moved suddenly while the central cut was being placed, possibly in an attempt to access a vein.”

Zivot, upon examining the body, agreed that the incision carved into James’s arm was most likely made in the death chamber, in an attempt to expose a vein that execution staff could see. The medical term for the procedure is cutdown, and its aftermath dismayed Zivot. “The use of a cutdown in this situation is a stark departure from what would be done in a medical setting,” he explained in an email. “I can’t tell if local anesthetic was first infused into the skin, as slicing deep into the skin with a sharp surgical blade in an awake person without local anesthesia would be extremely painful. In a medical setting, ultrasound has virtually eliminated the need for a cutdown, and the fact that a cutdown was utilized here is further evidence that the IV team was unqualified for the task in a most dramatic way.”

The absence of a local anesthetic during a cutdown, however, could explain two other unusual features of James’s execution: the shallow lacerations lining his arm, and the fact that he was evidently unresponsive during the entire lethal-injection procedure witnessed by the media.

Edgar observed that the “roughly parallel” incisions did “not appear to be part of any procedure,” but were “more consistent with trauma in my opinion, presumably incurred during a struggle that took place during the prolonged efforts to gain access to a vein.” If James had struggled profoundly enough to tear his own flesh with his restraints, that in itself may have prevented IV access. In that case, members of the execution team may have resorted to sedating James.

“I also see several puncture marks not in the anatomical vicinity of a known vein,” Zivot wrote in his assessment. “It is possible that this just represents gross incompetence, or some, or one, or more of these punctures were actually intramuscular injections. An intramuscular injection in this setting would only be used to deliver a sedating medication.”

With roughly one minute elapsing between the reading of James’s death warrant and the rush of poison into his veins, per witness accounts, it scarcely seems that anyone involved in his execution expected him to offer last words. Further, the DOC’s own admission that it cannot confirm James’s consciousness during the procedure raises an obvious question: Why? James had been alone in DOC custody for the past three hours, presumably undergoing repeated, torturous, abortive efforts to gain lethal access to one of his veins. If something had happened to James during that period that affected his consciousness, only DOC staff would know, and the agency’s complete failure to account for the last hours of James’s life or the awful suffering inflicted upon him before his death is ghastly, the sort of catastrophic, pseudo-medicinal brutality of our recent past that mainly flourishes behind closed doors.

Alabama had good reason to think it would never be held to account for what happened to James: He was, at the time of his death, entirely alone, having sought no attendees for his death. In fact, Ransom told me, James had been representing himself in a couple of pending matters before federal courts at the time of his execution, meaning that if he was indeed sedated at some point, what slim semblance of legal counsel he had—his own wits and abilities—was extinguished before his execution.

The thought troubled Ransom. If he had been present, he told me, he would have intervened on James’s behalf. There would have been precedent for that kind of intercession: As recently as 2018, Alabama was forced to halt the execution of Doyle Hamm after execution staff punctured his body at least 11 times in his ankles, legs, and groin, apparently even piercing his bladder over a three-hour period. Hamm’s attorney, Bernard Harcourt, was there that evening, demanding an explanation for the long delay and preparing a legal offensive for the morning. Hamm’s case has since become emblematic of the grotesque reality of lethal injection, compared with its putatively sterile, professional public-facing aesthetics. Lethal injections largely happen, quite literally, behind a curtain; what observers do see looks vaguely surgical; what they don’t looks like a war crime.

“The details of the torture inflicted on Joe James are tragic, but unfortunately no surprise to anyone who has had a client executed in Alabama with lethal injection,” John Palombi, an assistant federal defender, told me in an email. “Adding to the torture is the refusal of the Alabama Department of Corrections to admit or accurately discuss the issues with Mr. James’ execution … There should be an immediate moratorium on all executions in the state of Alabama until a thorough investigation of Alabama’s execution process, done by people outside the Department of Corrections, is complete.”

Megan McCracken, a lawyer based in Philadelphia with expertise in execution methods, told me in an email that, “It is only because of the total lack of transparency surrounding executions in Alabama that the DOC was able to spend such a long time on failed IV access attempts. If this process had been performed openly in front of witnesses, such that anyone outside the DOC knew what was happening at the time, the attempts likely would have been stopped. It is hard to imagine that the courts would countenance this kind of harrowing procedure, but when DOCs can shield their actions and make them invisible to the public, there is no accountability.”

Deborah Denno, a law professor and the founding director of the Neuroscience and Law Center at Fordham Law School, emphasized to me that James’s case is only the latest in a long sequence of botched executions that challenge the constitutionality of lethal injection on Eighth Amendment grounds. “From the very first lethal injection execution to the last—that of Joe Nathan James—the method is predictably disastrous, all the more so in the last dozen years given the lack of availability of drugs,” Denno wrote to me in an email. “James’s execution not only resembles the execution botches of the 1980s, it is even more egregious given the excessive lack of care and prison officials’ indifference to the safeguards of the execution process.”

Which is not to say that the state of Alabama will pay any particular heed to this investigation or its aftermath. There is no lobby for dead men. Execution states—24 remain—are, more and more, retreating into secrecy and elaborate privacy laws to hide their execution means and methods. Some states, like Alabama, simply ignore press inquiries into their executions or, as in this case, subject journalists to inexplicable delays and bland, unconvincing evasions. It appears that the state thought no one would catch it at what it was doing, and in most cases it would be correct; that alone is haunting. That it may haunt Faith Hall’s family evidently mattered not a jot to the state of Alabama.

The Halls, having fought for James’s life, were dismayed and outraged by the news of his torturous death. In Helvetius’s view, he said, Governor Ivey “was wrong for not contacting the victim’s family in any fashion, and she was wrong with her statement that Faith Hall got justice. This is not what she would have wanted. And we deserve an apology for that.”

Toni Hall agreed, as did State Representative Givan.

The family “simply wanted to be heard,” Givan told me. “They wanted an acknowledgment that they were victims and that their voices were listened to and that their concerns were weighed seriously. And I wonder: If they had been white, Anglo-Saxon Americans, would the governor or Attorney General Steve Marshall have at least returned their phone calls?”

Givan reflected that the entire sequence of events had been a grand indignity visited upon a family struggling to heal for more than 25 years, which concluded with the state’s utter indifference to their wishes and with James, the object of their attempted mercy, evidently too incapacitated on his deathbed to offer the barest apology.

But there is reason to believe that he intended to.

I spoke with two prisoners on Holman’s death row who had known James, spent some of those long years with him, seen him age and change into an older, different man—a committed Muslim who prayed regularly and devoted much of his time to studiously pursuing his own defense, not just for his own purposes, but for the sake of his friends on the row.

One of them told me that James had planned three items for his final words: To apologize to his mother and daughters, to apologize to the Hall family, and to pray the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith. He felt grateful for the family’s advocacy on his behalf, even startled by it, by the abrupt unilaterality of forgiveness. But he trusted it, and he appreciated it, and he needed it.

James still hadn’t chosen the exact words he meant to say, the second prisoner told me. The mind revolts at such closely considered finalities, and James had more reason than most to hope for mercy. Somewhere deep inside, he believed the Halls’ forgiveness had saved him.