Death Penalty

'Functionally Illiterate' Death Row Inmate Couldn't Understand a Form Letting Him Choose His Execution Method

Alabama allows death row inmates to pick an execution method other than lethal injection. But this intellectually disabled prisoner didn't receive proper accommodation, a judge says.


An Alabama man was sentenced to die later this month despite serious questions about his mental capacity and the method of execution. On Friday, a federal judge intervened on the prisoner's behalf.

Matthew Reeves was convicted of a brutal 1996 murder. Reeves and two friends had set out one night, "looking for some robberies," before their car broke down on the side of the road. A tow truck driver happened upon them and offered to help, at which point Reeves robbed and shot the driver, killing him. The two friends received life in prison and Reeves was sentenced to death.

But questions about Reeves' mental capacity plagued the case from the start. Recent testing indicates that Reeves has an IQ of around 70, showing "significantly subaverage intellectual functioning" and "significant deficits in multiple areas of adaptive functioning." The Supreme Court ruled in 2002's Atkins v. Virginia that executing a person with severe intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional, but left it up to the states to define intellectual disabilities for themselves.

When he was initially sentenced, Reeves was set to die by lethal injection, which is the primary method of execution nationwide. But since Reeves is in Alabama, he theoretically had the option to die in a different way: nitrogen.

After a series of botched executions in the mid-2010s led drug manufacturers to refuse to supply sedatives for lethal injection cocktails, an Oklahoma lawmaker proposed the nitrogen method. The air we breathe is about four parts nitrogen for every part oxygen. In theory, someone being put to death would simply breathe a supply of pure nitrogen, which would slowly replace the oxygen in his system and render him unconscious before his vital organs shut down. Supporters of the "nitrogen hypoxia" procedure say that it would be gradual, but painless.

Despite little evidence of the method's effectiveness, three states, including Alabama, have so far approved its use and intend to implement it. Alabama's law authorizing the method went into effect in 2018, and it allows condemned prisoners to choose electrocution or nitrogen hypoxia over lethal injection. Besides the benefit of a (supposedly) less painful procedure, there is also a strategic reason for choosing nitrogen hypoxia: No state has used it yet, and Alabama is still not ready to. For the several dozen inmates who have opted in, a sentence to death by nitrogen is, for the time being, practically a stay of execution.

But the 2018 law that authorized the method's use in Alabama contained an odd provision: A condemned prisoner could only opt for nitrogen hypoxia if the choice was "personally made by the person in writing and delivered to the warden of the correctional facility within 30 days" of his sentencing—or, if he had already been sentenced, within 30 days of June 1, 2018, the day the law went into effect. The state claimed that it had no obligation to inform any prisoners of the option, and inmates told the Montgomery Advertiser that they were not even made aware of it until days before the deadline.

It was during this five-day period that Reeves received a form with which he could have chosen nitrogen hypoxia. He did not fill it out, as he did not understand what it said. Reeves sued to be allowed to opt in to nitrogen hypoxia as opposed to lethal injection, on the basis that the state's failure to provide him with additional help was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. agreed, issuing a preliminary injunction ahead of Reeves' scheduled execution date of January 27, enjoining the state from executing him by lethal injection. Huffaker granted the reprieve on the basis that Reeves had been judged by multiple specialists to be "functionally illiterate," with a reading and comprehension level on par with an elementary schooler. Therefore, under the ADA, the state should have provided Reeves some "reasonable accommodation" when distributing the form. The state has not yet indicated whether it plans to appeal the decision: Last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear a nearly identical case brought by another Alabama inmate, who was executed by lethal injection in October.

Alabama's artificial 30-day timeline for nitrogen hypoxia selection is unnecessary and imposes extra burdens on its death row prisoners. This is doubly true for those with mental disabilities, who make up a disproportionate share of those executed each year. While there is so far no evidence that nitrogen hypoxia will accomplish what its supporters claim—humane and painless execution—it should still be available as an option for those sentenced to death. This is especially true when the primary alternative, lethal injection, can be so horribly and painfully botched.

This is not to say that Reeves does not deserve to be punished. His crime was terrible and senseless, and his sentence should reflect that. But it is beyond any reasonable expectation of the role of government for the state to kill a man who may only be capable of the most basic intellectual functions.

The death penalty is inherently inhumane, and in an ideal world, the state would have no authority to decide who lives and who dies. But if a government insists on putting prisoners to death, then the least it can do is let them choose the most humane manner possible.