The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Alabama could kill a death row prisoner by lethal injection despite his assertion that the state had lost his request to be killed by nitrogen hypoxia, a method of suffocation.
The prisoner, Alan Eugene Miller, who was convicted of murdering three men in 1999, was set to die after the Supreme Court said, in a 5-4 order without explanation, that his execution should not be blocked. Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court’s three liberal members in dissent, saying the legal battle over Mr. Miller’s execution method should be allowed to play out.
For several hours on Thursday night, it appeared that Mr. Miller, 57, would be executed by lethal injection, the method he had sought to avoid. But early on Friday morning, local journalists reported that the prison commissioner said the state had not been able to kill Mr. Miller before its midnight deadline.
Mr. Miller was convicted of killing three men on Aug. 5, 1999, at two Alabama businesses where he had worked, a plumbing company and a warehouse selling oxygen canisters.
In 2018, Alabama passed a law allowing death row prisoners to choose to be killed by the untested method of nitrogen hypoxia, in which a person is fatally deprived of oxygen, in part because the state was having difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injections. Mr. Miller said he had signed a form opting to be killed that way because of a fear of needles, but the state said it had no record of the request.
A federal judge had halted the execution after the head of Alabama’s prisons said the state would not be ready to execute Mr. Miller by nitrogen hypoxia on Thursday. The judge ruled that it was quite likely that Mr. Miller had filled out the form and that prison officials, who had no formal system of recording prisoners’ responses, had misplaced it. An appellate court upheld that decision on Thursday, but it was overturned later that night by the Supreme Court.
Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that collects data on executions, said the Supreme Court had eroded its credibility by saying the execution could take place.
“Today is another clear example that, when it comes to executions, it’s the outcome that matters to this court, whether or not it’s legal,” Mr. Dunham said. “That’s not what a neutral arbiter of the law does. That’s not what a legitimate court does.”
Alabama is among several states that have sought new execution methods as political pressure on pharmaceutical groups has made it more difficult for states to obtain lethal injection drugs.
South Carolina had planned to kill a prisoner by firing squad until a judge ruled this month that the method was unconstitutional. In Oklahoma, after a series of botched lethal injections, the state’s attorney general said in 2018 that it would pursue the use of nitrogen gas in executions; but it has used only lethal injection since, killing five prisoners with the method since last year.