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When they sang 'Amazing Grace': The Alabama Execution of James Barber
Alabama condemned him to death. He said he was headed for Higher Ground.
When James Barber’s friends and family gathered with him before the Alabama man’s execution Thursday, they sang.
One family member sang “Mary Did You Know,” a Southern staple.
Then, together, they sang “When the Saints Go Marching In,” sources told Tread, and James Barber led them all in a march around the room.
Finally, a prison staff member requested “Amazing Grace.”
Then, well after midnight, as darkness slouched over the south Alabama pines outside Holman prison, the State of Alabama executed James “Jimi” Barber for the 2001 murder of Dorothy “Dottie” Epps. His time of death, according to prison officials, was 1:56 a.m.
Before the State ended Barber’s life, he apologized to the Epps family and said he forgave Gov. Ivey and those in the execution chamber for what they were about to do.
Barber was the first person executed in Alabama since the state abandoned two attempted lethal injections and botched another when prison staff failed to access condemned citizens’ veins.
On Wednesday and Thursday, hours before his execution, Barber had been visited by Sarah Gregory, Epps’ granddaughter, who has said she opposed Alabama putting her grandmother’s killer to death.
“We have had the privilege of experiencing one of the most powerful spiritual forces in the universe: forgiveness,” Barber said. “I did not deserve it. I could not earn it. But I could not and will not ever take it for granted. Our lives have been changed in many wonderful and very miraculous ways.”
The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for Barber’s execution at 12:13 a.m. in a 6-3 vote. While the court’s majority did not provide a reason for allowing the lethal injection to move forward, Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson issued a written dissent.
“This Court’s decision denying Barber’s request for a stay allows Alabama to experiment again with a human life,” the three justices wrote in the late-night decision.
“I forgive you for what you’re about to do”
Members of the press were moved to Holman for the execution around 1:05 a.m., a little less than an hour after the Supreme Court voted to allow the lethal injection to move forward.
At 1:22, members of the press entered the witness chamber.
“Do you have a watch?”
There, witnesses chosen by James Barber, including his lawyer Mara Klebenar, were already seated.
“Time, please,” the lawyer asked a guard. No response.
“Do you have a watch?” Klebenar asked Tread’s Lee Hedgepeth. Members of the press were told watches were allowed under ADOC policy before being moved to Holman. A federal judge had denied Barber’s lawyer, however, the right to have a watch inside the execution witness chamber, citing a prison policy against jewelry.
Tread’s Lee Hedgepeth provided time updates to the lawyer when asked.
The curtains of the execution’s witness chamber opened at 1:30 a.m.
IV lines entered both of Barber’s hands as he lay, arms outstretched, with his torso strapped to the gurney. Bare fluorescent lights lit his body below.
While the execution warrant was being read, Klebenar placed her hand on the glass of the execution chamber’s window. A guard told her to remove it.
Barber looked ahead of him. His eyes were open and he appeared responsive as the execution warrant was read.
Around 1:33 a.m., a prison official asked for Barber’s last words.
He’d written down final words, Barber said in the execution chamber, but he hadn’t been allowed to read them from a piece of paper.
He spoke first to the family of Dorothy Epps, his victim.
“I love them. I’m sorry for what happened. I truly am. I can’t apologize anymore — no words would fit,” he said.
Barber then addressed Gov. Kay Ivey and those in the execution chamber.
“I forgive you for what you’re about to do.”
After the warden had exited the chamber, Barber began speaking to his spiritual advisor, an older white man wearing a patterned pink button-down.
Around 1:35, the spiritual advisor appeared to pray with Barber, placing his hand on the condemned man’s feet as he spoke.
At 1:37, Barber smiled. Then his eyes rolled back and slowly closed.
All movement stopped, save for Barber’s breathing, which became labored.
At 1:39, Barber’s mouth fell slightly open. A guard performed a consciousness check.
“Inmate Barber,” the guard yelled.
“It’s not normal breathing.”
At 1:40, the guard pinched Barber’s arm and gently pushed back on his eyelashes.
Around the same time, Klebenar noted his labored breathing.
“It’s like it’s contracting,” she said of his stomach. “It’s not normal breathing.”
The labored breathing continued until about 1:41 a.m., when all movement ceased.
At 1:47 a.m., the curtain of the execution chamber closed. Klebenar placed her hand on the glass a final time.
“Ma’am,” a guard chided her again.
Barber had asked U.S. Supreme Court Justices to halt his execution to provide him the opportunity to prove that Alabama’s effort to lethally inject him — like the attempted executions before it — would go awry, subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment forbidden by the U.S. Constitution.
The state’s effort to put Barber to death comes after Alabama botched three consecutive attempts at executions: the lethal injection of Joe Nathan James, which led to his death, and the attempted lethal injections of Alan Miller and Kenny Smith. Both Miller and Smith survived the state’s attempts to kill them.
Difficulty establishing vein access by members of the execution team led to the state’s failures to carry out its grim mission, officials would later confirm.
Those failures led to a brief moratorium on state-sanctioned deaths while its Department of Corrections conducted a review of the execution process. But months later, the in-house review, widely criticized as lacking rigor and independence, led to no substantive reforms of the death penalty system. Instead, the state chose to increase the window of time allowed for executions to be carried out and limited reviews of “plain errors” in capital cases.
In the wake of those failures, though, Barber argued that another attempted execution by lethal injection would violate the Constitution. Instead, Barber requested that his death come by nitrogen suffocation, an untested, unregulated method of execution allowed by Alabama law.
Still, federal courts rejected Barber’s argument that the state’s checkered history should prevent his execution. Dissenting from her court’s decision not to stop Barber’s execution, Judge Jill Pryor said the Alabama prison system would soon make Barber its “guinea pig.” Three Supreme Court Justices echoed that concern in their dissent.
In a press conference after the execution, John Hamm, Alabama’s prison commissioner said that it took the IV team 3 sticks to gain access to Barber’s veins.
But even days before Alabama would take his life, Barber had already set his faith in courts aside. He believed in something beyond the State of Alabama, he explained.
“My hope lies in the promises of my Creator, who is always faithful,” Barber said. “He is hope.”
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