Alabama killer executed for brutal murder of driver in 1996

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The Alabama killer who was executed Thursday by lethal injection for a 1996 murder remained silent during the procedure at Holman Prison.

Matthew Reeves, 43, was convicted of capital murder for murdering a driver who gave him a ride in 1996. Willie Johnson, the victim, died from a shotgun blast to the neck during the robbery. He picked up Reeves, 18 at the time, who was on the side of the road. Evidence showed he went to a party afterward and celebrated the killing with blood still on his hands.

He was pronounced dead at 9:35 p.m. local time. The Associated Press reported that he craned his neck to look a few times around the death chamber and grimaced and looked toward his left arm toward the intravenous line. “With his eyes closed and mouth slightly agape, Reeves’ abdomen moved repeatedly before he grew still.”

This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows death row inmate Matthew Reeves. Reeves was condemned for killing a man during a robbery in 1996. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)
(Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)

There was a last-minute fight by his lawyers seeking to stop the execution involved his intellect, his rights under federal disability law and how the state planned to kill him. Reeves claimed he had intellectual disabilities that prevented him from understanding the form offering him the chance to choose nitrogen hypoxia — a method never used in the U.S. — over lethal injection, which the inmate’s lawyers called “torturous.”

The sun sets behind Holman Prison in Atmore, Ala., on Thursday, Jan., 27, 2022, as the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether to allow the execution of death row inmate Matthew Reeves, convicted of killing a man during a robbery in 1996. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)
(AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

Reeves also claimed the state failed to help him understand the form. But the state argued he wasn’t so disabled that he couldn’t understand the choice. A poor reader and intellectually disabled, Reeves isn’t capable of making such a decision without assistance that should have been provided under the American With Disabilities Act, his lawyers argued. A prison worker who gave Reeves a form didn’t offer aid to help him understand, they said.

With Reeves contending he would have chosen nitrogen hypoxia over a “torturous” lethal injection had he comprehended the form, the defense filed suit asking a court to halt the lethal injection. U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker, Jr. blocked execution plans, ruling that Reeves had a good chance of winning the claim under the disabilities law.

A defense expert concluded Reeves had a first-grade reading level and the language competency of someone as young as 4, but the state disagreed that Reeves had a disability that would prevent him from understanding his options.

An Alabama inmate who was put to death by lethal injection last year, Willie B. Smith, unsuccessfully raised claims about being intellectually unable to make the choice for nitrogen hypoxia.

Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union ambassador to the U.S., had sent a letter both condemning Johnson’s killing and asking the governor Ivey to block the execution.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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