Mike Ludwig Prisoners' Rights Supreme Court

The Supreme Court Just Allowed the Executions of Two Disabled Black Men

Donald Grant and Matthew Reeves were executed after failing to “choose” their own method of death, activists say.
Officials from San Quentin State Prison in California display the prison’s lethal injection facility in 2010. California recently placed a moratorium on capital punishment, but other states are moving in the opposite direction, pursuing methods such as gas chambers and firing squads. MICHAEL MACOR / THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE VIA GETTY IMAGES

By Mike Ludwig / Truthout

In what activists warn could be the first in a spike of executions this year, Matthew Reeves and Donald Anthony Grant were killed via lethal injection by the states of Alabama and Oklahoma respectively on Thursday, just one month before a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol goes to trial.

The Supreme Court denied an application to stay Grant’s execution on Wednesday, a move overshadowed by the news that Justice Stephen Breyer plans to retire. Reeves’s life was in the high court’s hands Thursday as President Joe Biden began the process of selecting a nominee to succeed Breyer, but the justices reversed lower court rulings to allow the execution to proceed in a split 5-4 decision. The state of Alabama killed Reeves in Holman prison after the legal wrangling ended last night.

Both men are Black, and Black and Latino people make up more than half of death row nationally. Activists have long emphasized the systemic racism inherent in the death penalty system.

The killing of Grant and the dramatic, last-minute fight for Reeves’s survival comes “amidst a relatively new phenomena” of forcing prisoners to choose how they will be killed, according Abe Bonowitz, an organizer with Death Penalty Action. Both men were reportedly given a “decision” about how they would be killed but failed to make it in time. 

“We’re opening the 2022 execution season with the killing of two Black men who have a mental illness or intellectual disability, with lethal injections, because for whatever reason they didn’t choose the form of execution,” Bonowitz said in an interview on Thursday. “That is only reason they are being killed today.”

In a handwritten letter to a federal judge, Grant explained that he did not understand a lawyer who told him that he must affirmatively choose a different method besides lethal injection in order to join a class-action lawsuit challenging the practice in Oklahoma, which could have delayed the execution. Like others on death row, Grant also had religious objections to participating in his own execution by choosing the method of killing, according to legal filings.

A lawsuit filed by attorneys for Reeves argued the 44-year-old was intellectually disabled and functionally illiterate, and prison officials violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to help in understand, fill out and submit a form that gave him a choice between dying by lethal injection or in a gas chamber.

Alabama recently built a “system” for smothering people with nitrogen gas after lawmakers greenlit executions by gas in 2018, but the system has yet to be tested on a human being in Alabama or the handful of other states that allow gas executions. Experts say nitrogen executions could go wrong, and Alabama officials are still ironing out “protocols” for killing with a gas chamber or similar poison gas delivery system, which are likely to face litigation when complete, according to Bonowitz.

Had Reeves filled out the form requesting to die by gas “hypoxia” rather than lethal injection, he would not have been executed yesterday, Bonowitz said. 

“Everybody got to choose and he didn’t understand the form or how to fill it out, and that’s why he is up for execution,” Bonowitz said during the last hours of Reeves life. “Those who chose the gas chamber cannot get a date.”

A federal judge agreed that Reeves was likely to win his lawsuit and issued a stay on the execution that was upheld by an appeals court. The State of Alabama then asked the Supreme Court to lift the stay so Reeves could be put to death by lethal injection on Thursday. Five of the court’s conservative justices agreed, with Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett dissenting. Barrett is a conservative Catholic, and the Catholic Church now officially opposes the death penalty.

Lethal injection is extremely controversial, and many pharmaceutical companies refuse to provide states with the medications necessary for carrying out such executions. Lethal injection also faces legal challenges — a federal judge in Ohio ruled that the state’s injection protocol was unconstitutional in 2017 — pushing state lawmakers to consider abolishing the death penalty or deploying other methods of state-perpetrated murder. Like Alabama, Oklahoma prison officials also pursued nitrogen gas as an alternative to lethal injection, an effort that stalled last year as the state restarted its notorious lethal injection program.

A pair of apparently torturous lethal injections in 2014 and 2015 shocked the public and led to a moratorium on the execution method in Oklahoma, but last year state officials announced a new “protocol” for administering a three-drug cocktail that ultimately kills the recipient. When the Supreme Court denied his plea in October 2021, John Marian Grant (no relation to Donald Grant) became the first person to die by lethal injection after the moratorium. Grant repeatedly gasped for air, convulsed and vomited during the first and second phases of the execution.

Donald Grant and Gilbert Postelle, a man who is scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma next month, pointed to John Grant’s death as evidence of “severe pain and suffering” that violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Grant and Postelle had both requested they die by firing squad (which they argued would be less painful) in order to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit against lethal injection filed by death row prisoners, but the Supreme Court denied their request to intervene. Postelle is schedule to die on February 17, about a week before the lawsuit goes to trial.

The death penalty is still legal in 27 states, but lawmakers in Utah, Ohio, and other states where dozens of people are currently on death row are now considering abolishing the death penalty. Additionally, California, Oregon, Pennsylvania and the federal government have declared a moratorium on executions. Other states are moving in the opposite direction as lethal injection is challenged. South Carolina, for example, is creating the firing squad and also gives prisoners the choice to die in the electric chair.

“We can see the end of the death penalty coming in the United States,” Bonowitz said. “But first it’s likely to get bloody.” 

Reeves, who had a low IQ, was convicted of robbing and murdering a man who picked him up on the highway at the age of 18. Grant was convicted of killing two people to cover his tracks after robbing the hotel where he worked in hopes of bonding his girlfriend out of jail.

Bonowitz emphasizes that, questions of execution methods aside, advocates hope to abolish the death penalty entirely. 

“At the end of the day, for those of us concerned about the death penalty, the issue is not how we kill our prisoners, but that we kill them at all when the criminal legal system in this country is as broken as it is,” Bonowitz wrote in an email.

Reeves called into a virtual prayer vigil with activists, faith leaders and supporters just minutes before the group learned of the Supreme Court ruling that would seal his fate. Reeves said attorney and guards were gathering outside his cell.

“Thank ya’ll for your prayers and standing for me and trying to make change,” Reeves said.

Mike Ludwig

Mike Ludwig is a staff reporter at Truthout based in New Orleans. He is also the writer and host of “Climate Front Lines,” a podcast about the people, places and ecosystems on the front lines of the climate crisis. 

13 comments

  1. Set them all free and let them vote and run for office. Can’t be any worse than what we already have. Look at the thousands of innocents murdered in our ugly and unnecessary wars. This country has no business making judgements on anyone.

  2. A relative is incarcerated at the 80-year-old Julia Tutwiler Prison. She won’t be going anywhere for at least another 20 years – only got that lucky ’cause she copped a plea.

    I can’t send her money for overpriced goods from the commissary without being nickel & dimed by Access Corrections.

    The state recently approved using $400 million of pandemic relief funds for two new 4,000 bed men’s prisons.

    A complete shit show all-around.

  3. I spent six years in prison for a crime that I did not commit.
    After liquidating every asset that I possessed, I managed to extricate myself from my kidnappers, via the appeals process.
    I did not receive justice, but they did ultimately have to turn me loose.
    I am not an anomaly.
    The legal system in the US is creating a population of enraged people, who are going to have to be reconciled with.
    If anyone thinks that us convicts don’t explore our options for getting revenge, those persons have no idea what it is to be human.
    I am one of the fortunate few, who had a lifetime of accumulated resources to use to fight the state legal machine.
    The corruption and rot goes all the way from the pigs, with their badges and military equipment, to the cowards in the black dresses, with their wooden gavels.
    I have seen zero remorse from any of the shit people who did this to me, and my spouse.
    They tried to get her to lie and testify against me, by charging her as a coconspirator, locking her up in jail, and ruining her life.
    I don’t have enough time to go into all of the details about what we have been through.
    I try very hard to let it all go, and enjoy my liberty.
    But, the police are pissed that they didn’t crush me.
    And, being the ultimate in cowards, the whole police force has a protective order against me.
    One last thought:
    If the US military goes up against the Russians, those Russkies are gonna eat them for lunch.
    No bout a doubt it.
    Show an excon some empathy.
    It may save your life.
    No justice, no peace.
    I wish that it wasn’t so.
    But, if you abuse a dog long enough, it will turn on you.
    Apparently, people aren’t all that different from that.
    I wish you well.
    I can’t just turn my back and walk away.
    The state won’t have it.

    1. When people have been exonerated after years in prison and are seemingly just happy to be out I can’t help wonder what is going on in their heads & hearts. Perhaps they are deeply spiritual, or maybe just completely broken.

      All I can say is that I hope you channel your righteous anger in a positive direction.

      1. Concerning the relationship between the accused and those who stand in judgment, I recommend the book Resist Not Evil, by Clarence Darrow.
        “In the light of infinite justice, no greater crime could be committed than to judge and condemn your fellows, and if there shall ever be a final day when the crooked is made straight and the purpose of all shall be revealed and understood, safer far will be the man who has received the sentence than the one who has dared to pass judgment on another’s life and pronounced it bad.”
        Mr. Darrow was an atheist.
        Reading this book can be a healing process.
        It was for me.

      2. Fishbone is my spouse and soulmate.
        In my experience, most exonerations are not publicized.
        I continue to be a societal outcast.
        Completely misunderstood.
        It is difficult to be forgiving when the crime against me continues even after my release.
        How can there be a reconciliation when the truth is hidden, and in fact actively despised by those people who have perpetrated this crime against us.
        I would love to have a loving and happy relationship with my fellow man.
        A we’re sorry would be a great place to start.
        It’s been almost two years since the Supreme Court ruled in my case.
        I’m in my late 60s.
        Fishbone has advanced, aggressive, inoperable small cell lung cancer.
        How much longer should we wait, I ask myself.
        We are afraid of what the state legal machine will try to do to us next.
        They have put me in jail one time, for two days, since I have been “home”.
        But, I have learned a few things about protecting myself from false accusations, so again, they had to turn me loose.
        I have discovered that it is possible to be broken, yet still have love for those people who are just ignorant.
        But, without any love coming back to me, my humanity is dying a slow, and painful death.
        The only friends that I have are still in prison, so they are not a source of comfort, just a reminder of how sad this all is.
        Don Henley says that it’s about forgiveness.
        Rodney King asks, “can’t we all just get along?”
        Roger Daultry sings, “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me.”
        The state says, “we’re gonna get you sucka “.
        I wish you well.

  4. I have decided to add one additional detail about my prison experience.
    On my first day in, I was attacked by a man turned savage.
    He believed that I was sitting in his seat, so he hit me in the head, from behind, and then kicked me in the head, for one minute and twenty three seconds, until the COs walked in.
    Then he stopped, immediately, without having to be restrained.
    He was not prosecuted.
    I now have no teeth in my mouth, and my hearing, and vision, on my right side is permanent impaired.
    I am lucky to be alive????
    The way I feel inside some days, makes me wonder.
    No justice, no peace inside of me.
    It has made me sickly.
    I rely upon humor, and Joe Walsh, and Rush to survive.
    Those are blessings.
    As are some of the beautiful anarchists, and socialists, writers, and physicians that I have encountered, as I have begun to explore the World Wide Web.
    There’s beauty and ugliness on the net, just like in prison.
    I am grateful for the kindness that I have found online, at times.
    We are all related. Right?

  5. Abe:

    They were executed because 12 jurors found that execution was the most just sanction for the murders.

  6. Mike:

    Here is the reason that black and brown folks make up more than half of death row.

    Race, ethnicity and crime statistics.

    For the White–Black comparisons, the Black level is 12.7 times greater than the White level for homicide, 15.6 times greater for robbery, 6.7 times greater for rape, and 4.5 times greater for aggravated assault.

    For the Hispanic- White comparison, the Hispanic level is 4.0 times greater than the White level for homicide, 3.8 times greater for robbery, 2.8 times greater for rape, and 2.3 times greater for aggravated assault.

    For the Hispanic–Black comparison, the Black level is 3.1 times greater than the Hispanic level for homicide, 4.1 times greater for robbery, 2.4 times greater for rape, and 1.9 times greater for aggravated assault.

    Sharp: As the most common capital murders, those which are death penalty eligible, are rape/murders and robbery/murders, the perceived “disparities” (aka expected multiples) will most likely be even greater than the numbers, above.

    “Recent studies suggest a decline in the relative Black effect on violent crime in recent decades and interpret this decline as resulting from greater upward mobility among African Americans during the past several decades.”

    “However, other assessments of racial stratification in American society suggest at least as much durability as change in Black social mobility since the 1980s.”

    When correcting for the Hispanic effect:

    “Results suggest that little overall change has occurred in the Black share of violent offending in both UCR and NCVS estimates during the last 30 years.”

    From

    REASSESSING TRENDS IN BLACK VIOLENT CRIME, 1980.2008: SORTING OUT THE “HISPANIC EFFECT” IN UNIFORM CRIME REPORTS ARRESTS, NATIONAL CRIME VICTIMIZATION SURVEY OFFENDER ESTIMATES, AND U.S. PRISONER COUNTS, See pages 208-209, FN 5, DARRELL STEFFENSMEIER, BEN FELDMEYER, CASEY T. HARRIS, JEFFERY T. ULMER, Criminology, Volume 49, Issue 1, Article first published online: 24 FEB 2011
    https://www.academia.edu/8359043/Reassessing_Trends_in_Black_Violent_Crime_1980-2008_Sorting_out_the_Hispanic_Effect_in_UCR_Arrests_NCVS_Offenders_Estimates_and_U.S._Prisoner_Counts

  7. Concerning the relationship between the accused and those who stand in judgment, I recommend the book Resist Not Evil, by Clarence Darrow.
    “In the light of infinite justice, no greater crime could be committed than to judge and condemn your fellows, and if there shall ever be a final day when the crooked is made straight and the purpose of all shall be revealed and understood, safer far will be the man who has received the sentence than the one who has dared to pass judgment on another’s life and pronounced it bad.”
    Mr. Darrow was an atheist.
    Reading this book can be a healing process.
    It was for me.

  8. Thank you to the people at Scheerpost for allowing me to speak.
    It gets me through another day, and lightens my burden, just enough.
    We all have a story to tell.
    Some of us have a more urgent need to tell ours than some of our brothers and sisters.
    I am always grateful for any kindness that I experience.

  9. I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the role that Chris Hedges has played in my maintenance of my tenuous grasp on my sanity and humanity.
    In one of his books, Chris told me that if I maintain my integrity, and focus on being an ethical human being, and not focus on the inhuman behavior that those around me engage in, that I will survive, and even flourish.
    His words saved my humanity at one of the lowest points in my life.
    It’s a debt of gratitude that cannot be repaid, only appreciated.

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