Justice

Why We Don’t Know Much About Last Night’s Execution In Georgia

CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File

Georgia executed a 72-year-old man Tuesday night. Brandon Astor Jones, the oldest inmate on Georgia’s death row, took several minutes to die. Execution staff had to insert an IV into his groin, likely because they could not find a vein in his arms. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jones’ eyes closed at first but then opened again six minutes later, looking at the clock on the wall and then the district attorney who prosecuted him for armed robbery in 1979.

Jones was convicted of murdering Roger Tackett, a convenience store manager while trying to rob the store. The death sentence handed down in 1979 was unusually disproportionate for the crime committed, Jones’ lawyers say, and would be unthinkable today. A series of missteps by his lawyer and the court — he had to be resentenced in 1989 because jurors had a Bible in the room as they deliberated — allowed Jones to stay out of the death chamber for almost 37 years. Over the past three decades, Jones has become a prolific writer, publishing essays on politics and life in prison in local papers and magazines.

On Tuesday, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected, with a 6-5 divide, Jones’ request for an en banc hearing on Georgia’s notorious execution secrecy law, which shields the identity of the pharmacist who provided the lethal drugs for the execution. That law, one dissent notes, withholds the exact information needed to legally challenge the method of execution.

Judge Robin Rosenbaum wrote in another dissenting opinion, “Today Brandon Jones will be executed, possibly in violation of the Constitution. He may also be cruelly and unusually punished in the process. But if he is, we will not know until it’s too late — if ever.”

Following that decision, the Georgia Supreme Court and the Georgia parole board declined to stay Jones’ execution Tuesday. The U.S. Supreme Court shot down several last-minute stays as well.

Georgia is one of several states that has shrouded its execution procedures in secrecy as lethal drugs become harder to obtain. Since professional medical associations and European drug companies have refused to supply states with drugs if they’re intended to kill people, state officials have resorted to questionable sources and shady practices.

Georgia says it classifies its contracts with physicians as “state secrets” for the doctors’ own protection. The state has also rewritten the law to say doctors are not practicing medicine when they prescribe an execution drug, to try to get around the fact that doctors are prohibited by the Hippocratic Oath from participating in executions.

Georgia has their own share of issues with their lethal injection protocol. The state delayed the execution of Kelly Gissendaner last year to determine why a shipment of drugs appeared “cloudy” — a question that was never fully answered, though executions resumed with non-cloudy drugs. The drug controversy came up in every death row appeal last year, but the state parole board and the courts have repeatedly shot down these concerns.

Georgia is expected to execute three more people in the coming weeks.