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‘Something Terrible Had Been Done’: Questions Arise Around the Execution of Joe Nathan James Jr., After Independent Autopsy is Performed and Unusual Marks Found on His Body

A journalist covering the death of an Alabama man who died by a state-sanctioned lethal injection is raising questions surrounding his recent killing. After observing a private autopsy and eyeing puncture marks outside of the point of injection, she believes someone in corrections was lying when they said to the media, “nothing out of the ordinary” had happened to the man before his execution.

Convicted murderer Joe Nathan James Jr., who spent the last three decades on death row, was executed at William C. Holman Correctional Facility’s death chamber on Thursday, July 28 after Yellowhammer State’s Supreme Court rejected the pleas of his victim’s family, two adult-children who asked the court for mercy and to spare his life. 

James had killed their mother and his ex-girlfriend, Faith Hall, at her apartment on Aug. 15, 1994, by shooting her three times. She was breaking up with him and he could not accept the separation.

Years later, her children who were 6 and 3, when she was killed, wanted to halt his execution. Hall’s oldest daughter, Terryln said, “I don’t want it to go forward. We’re not God.”

 “I just feel like we can’t play God. We can’t take a life. We thought about it and prayed about it, and we found it in ourselves to forgive him for what he did. We really wish there was something that we could do to stop it,” she continued.

The younger sister Toni Hall, said “An eye for an eye has never been a good outlook for life.”

Lastly, Hall’s brother also spoke out against the execution with his nieces addressing the governor, but to no avail. The state’s high court decided to go through with taking his life, unanimously opining, “[The] Plaintiff has not carried his burden of persuasion for an injunction to issue on a stay of execution. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction is DENIED.”

Elizabeth Bruenig, a reporter for the Atlantic, covered the execution and also viewed a private autopsy of his body two weeks later.

She noted her first impression after seeing the corpse was “hands and wrists had been burst by needles, in every place one can bend or flex.”

“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,” Bruenig continued, before writing, “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.” 

The reporter said after she saw how ravished his dead body was, she called the Department of Corrections, but no one would render a comment.

This is not the first controversy, or second if one includes the disregard of the family’s wishes to save his life, connected to the execution.

Only two journalists were able to witness the execution, Associated Press’ Kim Chandler and AL.com’s Ivana Hrynkiw. Hrynkiw stated she was almost disinvited because her outfit did not fit the facility’s dress code.

The prison staff demanded, “Hrynkiw change from a skirt into a borrowed pair of men’s fishing waders and sneakers before allowing her to proceed as a witness.”

The two reporters stated as they followed James to his final destination, there was usual and visible support from his other inmates. Bruenig said her colleagues shared, “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.”

Chandler and Hrynkiw waited approximately two hours for the execution to the begin, recording the details available to them by the facility’s staff.

James did not respond when asked if he had any last words and did not open his eyes during the entire procedure. His death warrant was read out loud at 9:03 p.m. The lethal injection started at 9:04 p.m. He was declared dead at 9:27 p.m. 

Witnesses say his only movement was in the final “death throes,” but he was “unresponsive from beginning to end.”

The execution had been scheduled to begin during the 6 p.m. hour, but it took over three hours for the actual procedure to start.

It took less than 30 minutes from the start of the procedure to its culmination, where members of the press were told that “nothing out of the ordinary” occurred during his death.

When asked about the hold-up, John Hamm, the corrections department commissioner, said 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.”

A spokesperson for the agency, Kelly Betts sent a statement to the press saying, “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,” Betts continued. “Fortunately, this was not necessary and with adequate time, intravenous access was established.” 

However, Bruenig reports this statement was later retracted, as the ADOC could not confirm if James had been “fully conscious” during the procedure, despite their efforts to assure journalists he was not given a sedative before its start.

One person especially suspicious is his last defense attorney, Jim Ransom, who said the fact that his client didn’t say anything was a red flag for him.

“That sent up red flags. It didn’t ring true,” Ransom said to Bruenig the evening of the autopsy. 

“Joe always had something to say. Joe would’ve said no,” the lawyer stated. “That’s Joe.” 

The ADOC would have everyone believe the man that told his lawyer he “wanted to fight ’em to the very last minute,” offered no words of regret, indignation, not “an apology for his victim’s family nor an utterance of gratitude for their efforts to save his life.”

In fact, the family received no words — not from their loved one’s killer or the state who pressed on with his death.

Two prisoners on death row with James, who watched him transform his life from 1994 until now, becoming a devout Muslim, said he told them he had every intention of saying something to the family of his victim. He wanted his last words to reflect the change he made in his life.

“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,” Bruenig reported.

The independent autopsy was initiated by death row opponent, Joel Zivot. Two days after the execution, he said he heard rumors that James’ execution was irregular. His probe was to determine if any injustice was rendered to the man, even in his death.

The activist reached out to the lawyer and James’ estate to get permission for the autopsy, discovering they had concerns also.

Ransom, James’ counsel, said, “I had my suspicions about the time lapse and I feel like the state needs to be held accountable when they mess up.”

One of the man’s brothers, Hakim James also had spoken up, saying he felt it “needed to be done.”

The family is still seeking support to get to the bottom of what actually happened to him, not just rumors but the truth.

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