ATMORE, Ala. — Alabama executed an inmate by lethal injection for a 1996 murder Thursday after a divided U.S. Supreme Court sided with the state and rejected defense claims the man had an intellectual disability that cost him a chance to choose a less “torturous,” yet untried, execution method.
Matthew Reeves, 43, was put to death at Holman Prison after the court lifted a lower court order that had prevented corrections workers from executing the prisoner. He was pronounced dead at 9:24 p.m. CST, state Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement.
Reeves was convicted of killing a driver who gave him a ride in 1996. Evidence showed Reeves went to a party afterward and celebrated the killing.
Reeves was convicted of capital murder for the killing of Willie Johnson, who died from a shotgun blast to the neck during a robbery in Selma on Nov. 27, 1996, after picking up Reeves and others on the side of a rural highway.
After the dying man was robbed of $360, Reeves, then 18, went to a party where he danced and mimicked Johnson’s death convulsions, authorities said. A witness said Reeves’ hands were still stained with blood at the celebration, a court ruling said.
While courts have upheld Reeves’ conviction, the last-minute fight by his lawyers seeking to stop the execution involved his intellect, his rights under federal disability law and how the state planned to kill him.
The Supreme Court on Thursday evening tossed out a decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled Wednesday that a district judge didn’t abuse his discretion in ruling that the state couldn’t execute Reeves by any method other than nitrogen hypoxia, which has never been used.
In 2018, Alabama death row inmates had a chance to sign a form choosing either lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method after legislators approved the use of nitrogen. But Reeves was among the inmates who didn’t fill out the form stating a preference.
Suing under the American With Disabilities Act, Reeves claimed he had intellectual disabilities that prevented him from understanding the form offering him the chance to choose nitrogen hypoxia — a method never used in the U.S. — over lethal injection, which the inmate’s lawyers called “torturous.”
Reeves also claimed the state failed to help him understand the form. But the state argued he wasn’t so disabled that he couldn’t understand the choice.
It was a divided court that let the execution proceed. Justice Amy Coney Barrett said she would deny the state’s request, while Justice Stephen Breyer, who just announced his retirement, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined with Justice Elena Kagan in a dissent that said the execution shouldn’t occur.
The state had previously asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift a lower court injunction and allow the execution, but the panel on Wednesday had refused and said a judge didn’t abuse his discretion in ruling that the state couldn’t execute Reeves by any method other than nitrogen hypoxia, which has never been used. Alabama appealed that decision, sending the case to the Supreme Court.
Alabama switched from the electric chair to lethal injection after 2002, and in 2018 legislators approved the use of another method, nitrogen hypoxia, amid defense challenges to injections and shortages of chemicals needed for the procedure. The new method would cause death by replacing oxygen that the inmate breathes with nitrogen.
A poor reader and intellectually disabled, Reeves asn’t capable of making such a decision without assistance that should have been provided under the American With Disabilities Act, his lawyers argued. A prison worker who gave Reeves a form didn’t offer aid to help him understand, they said.
With Reeves contending he would have chosen nitrogen hypoxia over a “torturous” lethal injection had he comprehended the form, the defense filed suit asking a court to halt the lethal injection. U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker, Jr. blocked execution plans, ruling that Reeves had a good chance of winning the claim under the disabilities law.
A defense expert concluded Reeves reads at a first grade level and has the language competency of someone as young as 4, but the state disagreed that Reeves had a disability that would prevent him from understanding his options.
An Alabama inmate who was put to death by lethal injection last year, Willie B. Smith, unsuccessfully raised claims about being intellectually unable to make the choice for nitrogen hypoxia.
Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union ambassador to the U.S., had sent a letter both condemning Johnson’s killing and asking Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to block the execution because of Reeves’ claim. Ivey also received a clemency bid from Reeves’ attorneys but released no decision.