NEW YORK – After Alabama carried out the second execution of the year on Thursday, Jan. 27, the archbishop of Mobile vowed that he and the state’s other prelates will continue to speak out against capital punishment.
Matthew Reeves, 44, was executed by lethal injection at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, at 10:24 p.m. ET. The Supreme Court allowed the execution hours earlier when it narrowly sided with the state, and rejected defense claims that Reeves had an intellectual disability that prevented him from choosing a different execution method.
“I, and my fellow bishops of the Province of Mobile, have spoken out several times against capital punishment and we will continue to do so,” Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile told Crux in a statement. “In this particular case, it was especially disturbing that an individual with reportedly a very low IQ was executed.”
Reeves was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the murder of Willie Johnson on November 27, 1996.
That day Reeves, his brother and multiple others set out to commit a robbery when their car broke down. Johnson saw them stranded and offered to tow their vehicle with his truck, which they accepted. Along the way they decided to rob Johnson.
Sometime after 7 p.m., Johnson pulled the truck into an alley behind the Reeves’ home in Selma to drop them off. Once the truck stopped, Reeves shot Johnson in the neck with a shotgun. They then robbed him of $350 and left him there to die. Reeves allegedly reenacted and celebrated the killing at a party afterwards.
Prior to the high court’s ruling, Reeves’s execution was blocked by lower courts after Reeves sued the state under the Americans with Disabilities Act claiming that he was intellectually disabled and that the state didn’t help him understand paperwork that would’ve allowed him to be executed by a different method. He wanted to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia, a new method that would use nitrogen gas to carry out the execution.
Both the prosecution and the defense in the case tested Reeves for intellectual disability and found that his IQ was in the high 60s, or low 70s. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) defines intellectual disability by significant defects in functional and adaptive skills and an IQ score below 70.
The Catholic Mobilizing Network, an organization that advocates against the death penalty, called the execution the latest example of the culture of death that exists in modern society.
“Tonight’s execution of #MatthewReeves represents a legal system that allows violence to serve as a cheap replacement for true justice,” the Catholic Mobilizing Network posted on social media on Thursday. “Executions contribute to a culture of death and draw us further away from a culture of reconciliation that Jesus calls us to build upon.”
Hours earlier, the organization spoke out about the execution of Donald Grant at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, posting that “every human life is bestowed with God-given dignity, even the lives of those who have caused grave harm … and we lament that the state of Oklahoma is choosing to move forward with this execution.”
Grant, 46, was executed by lethal injection at 11:16 a.m. ET on Thursday. It was the first execution of 2022. He was convicted of two counts of first degree, malice aforethought murder and two counts of robbery with a firearm and sentenced to death for the murders of Brenda McElyea and Felicia Suzette Smith on July 18, 2001.
After the execution, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City said that “we need to build a society that truly chooses life in all situations.”
“We must stop the cycle of violence and end the use of the death penalty,” Coakley said in a statement. “Please join me in praying for Brenda McElyea and Felicia Suzette Smith and their grieving friends and families, pray for the soul of Donald Grant and for his family, and pray for corrections staff involved in carrying out the execution.”
On July 18, 2001, Grant entered a La Quinta Inn in Del City, Oklahoma, with the intent to rob the hotel for money to post a girlfriend’s bond. In the process of the robbery, he brutally shot and stabbed McElyea and Smith, two hotel employees.
Grant requested to be executed by a firing squad, but that request was denied. Ahead of the execution his lawyers also argued that he was an eligible candidate for mercy because he was mentally ill and suffered brain damage.
The victims’ families in both the Reeves and Grant murders were pleased with the executions. “After 26 years, justice has finally been served. Our family can now have some closure,” said Johnson’s family in a statement on Thursday read at a press conference by Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm.
Shirl Pilcher, McElyea’s sister, said at a news conference that they can “finally move forward knowing justice was served,” adding that “I for one am ready to remember the beauty of my sister instead of reliving the brutality of her death.”
Despite the early executions in 2022, 2021 was a year of hope for those advocating against the death penalty with only 11 executions nationwide, which is the lowest total since 1988. It was also the seventh consecutive year with less than 30 executions nationwide, and Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty.
At the federal level, Attorney General Merrick Garland imposed a moratorium on executions over the summer.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg