U.S. Supreme Court

Barrett joined dissenting liberal justices as Supreme Court allowed execution of inmate seeking nitrogen death

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Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the high court’s three liberal justices to dissent Thursday, when it allowed the execution of an inmate who claimed that Alabama lost his request for execution by nitrogen hypoxia.

Barrett joined the court’s newest justice, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, report the New York Times (via How Appealing), AL.com and SCOTUSblog.

Barrett also joined the court’s liberal justices in a dissent in January, when the Supreme Court allowed the execution of another Alabama inmate who sought execution by nitrogen hypoxia. At that time, the liberal bloc still included Justice Stephen Breyer, who was later replaced by Jackson.

In its Sept. 22 order, issued at 9:08 p.m., the Supreme Court majority allowed the lethal injection execution of 57-year-old Alan Eugene Miller, according to AL.com. The inmate’s execution could not be carried out before midnight when the death warrant expired, however, because executioners couldn’t find a vein in time.

“There are several things that we have to do before we even start accessing the veins,” said John Hamm, the Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner, who spoke with AL.com and other reporters at the prison media center. “And that was taking a little bit longer than we anticipated.”

Miller was convicted for shooting and killing three men at two businesses where he had worked.

The execution will be rescheduled. Alabama is preparing to use nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but the state is not yet ready. The state gave death row inmates 30 days to choose nitrogen hypoxia.

Oklahoma and Mississippi have also authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative.

Nitrogen hypoxia would work by delivering nitrogen to the inmate until they die from a lack of oxygen, Scientific American reports. The idea to use the gas in executions partly came from a criminal justice professor at the East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, said Corinna Barrett Lain, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia.

“He’s not a doctor,” Lain told Scientific American. “He doesn’t have any medical training. He’s not a scientist. But he knew one of the legislators” in Oklahoma who proposed using nitrogen gas in executions in 2014.

During legislative hearings, state lawmakers heard about pilots and scuba divers dying when they accidentally breathed pure nitrogen, instead of nitrogen mixed with oxygen, according to Scientific American.

States could carry out nitrogen executions by building a gas chamber or by using a specialized gas mask with a tight seal that would not expose the executioner or witnesses.

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