Alabama man who beat elderly woman to death with fists, claw hammer set to be executed

Published 3:45 pm Thursday, July 20, 2023

Alabama plans to execute an inmate on Thursday for the 2001 beating death of a woman as the state seeks to carry out its first lethal injection after a pause in executions following a string of problems with inserting the IVs.

James Barber, 64, is scheduled to be put to death Thursday evening at a south Alabama prison. It is the first execution scheduled in the state since Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey paused executions in November to conduct an internal review.

Ivey ordered the review after two lethal injections were called off because of difficulties inserting IVs into the condemned men’s veins.

Attorneys for inmate Alan Miller said prison staff poked him with needles for over an hour as they unsuccessfully tried to connect an IV line to him and at one point left him hanging vertically on a gurney during his aborted execution in September. State officials called off the November execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith after they saying they were unsuccessful in connecting the second of two required lines.

Advocacy groups claimed a third execution, carried out in July after a delay because of IV problems, was botched because of multiple attempts to connect the line, a claim the state has disputed.

“Given Alabama’s recent history of botched executions, it is staggering that James Barber’s lethal injection is set to take place,” Maya Foa, director of the anti-death penalty group Reprieve, said. “Three executions in a row went horribly wrong in Alabama last year, yet officials have asserted that ‘no deficiencies’ were found in their execution process.”

Barber was convicted in the 2001 beating death of 75-year-old Dorothy Epps. Prosecutors said Barber, a handyman who knew Epps’ daughter, confessed to killing Epps with a claw hammer and fleeing with her purse. Jurors voted 11-1 to recommend a death sentence, which a judge imposed.

Barber’s execution was scheduled for the same day that Oklahoma executed Jemaine Cannon for stabbing a Tulsa woman to death with a butcher knife in 1995 after his escape from a prison work center.

Attorneys for Barber have asked federal courts to block the lethal injection, citing the state’s past problems. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to halt the execution on Wednesday. Judges noted the state had conducted a review of procedures and wrote that “Barber’s claim that the same pattern would continue to occur” is “purely speculative.”

The court noted that the Alabama Department of Corrections had changed medical personnel and lengthened the timeframe for executions.

“ADOC conducted a full review of its execution processes and procedures, determined that no deficiencies existed with the protocol itself, and instituted certain changes to help ensure successful constitutional executions,” the court wrote.

Barber appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, asking justices to stay the execution. His lawyers wrote that the “fourth lethal injection execution that will likely be botched in the same manner as the prior three.”

“Alabama’s past three execution proceedings imposed needless physical and emotional suffering on inmates to such an extent that Alabama paused its lethal injection executions and undertook an internal review of its procedures,” Barber’s lawyers wrote in the Supreme Court filing. “Shockingly, however, that review resulted in no substantive changes to Alabama’s procedures or to the qualifications of those carrying out lethal injection executions.”

The Alabama attorney general’s office has urged the courts to let the execution proceed. The state argued that the Department of Corrections has made a good faith effort to correct any problems that had occurred and has submitted documentation showing the people responsible for setting IV lines are appropriately licensed.

“Mrs. Epps and her family have waited for justice for twenty-two years,” the Alabama attorney general’s office wrote in a court filing with the 11th Circuit.

The state conducted an internal review of procedures. Ivey rebuffed requests from several groups, including a group of faith leaders, to follow the example of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and authorize an independent review of the state’s execution procedures.

One of the changes Alabama made following the internal review was to give the state more time to carry out the execution. The Alabama Supreme Court did away with its customary midnight deadline to get an execution underway in order to give the state more time to establish an IV line and battle last-minute legal appeals. The state will have until 6 a.m. Friday to start Barber’s execution.