The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a stay of execution for an Alabama death row inmate who said his intellectual disability was not accommodated by the Alabama Department of Corrections when he was asked to choose the manner of his execution. Matthew Reeves, who was sentenced to death for the 1996 murder of Willie Johnson, was originally scheduled to die Thursday.
The state attorney's general office said after Wednesday's ruling that it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, CBS affiliate WIAT-TV reports. If the Supreme Court overturns the lower court rulings, Reeves will be executed as scheduled by lethal injection.
In his claim asking for a stay of execution, Reeves argued that the DOC violated his rights under the Americans with Disability Act because he was not given an adequate chance to choose an alternate method of execution to lethal injection.
"Notably, this is not a case where a defendant has asked a district court to enjoin a state from executing him altogether, regardless of the method of execution," the opinion from the circut court's three-judge panel read. "Mr. Reeves requested only that the court prevent the ADOC from executing him by any method other than the one he would have chosen but for the defendants' alleged violation of the ADA, pending resolution of his ADA claim."
In 2018, the state of Alabama voted to allow death row prisoners to die by way of nitrogen hypoxia, a method which proponents argue is less painful and faster than lethal injection. Prisoners on death row were required to sign a paper opting into the new execution form.
Reeves did not fill out the form, but argued in his ADA claim that his inability to choose the new method was discrimination as the prison knew he was a "qualified individual with a disability," but did not provide accommodations like having a qualified expert read or explain the form to Reeves.
Wednesday's ruling highlighted evidence from a speech pathologist hired by Reeves who determined his "language competency was that of someone between the ages of 4 and 10," calling him "essentially illiterate."
"She determined that Mr. Reeves could read at a 4th grade level but could only comprehend at a 1st grade level. The election form, which she ran through software programs designed to calculate the readability of the language utilized, 'required an 11th grade reading level to be understood,'" the ruling stated.
Reeves was 18 years old when he murdered Johnson. Witnesses testified that Reeves and his friends had been driving around looking for victims to rob when their car broke down. Johnson drove by and offered them a ride and tow, but once inside the cab of his truck, Reeves shot Johnson in the neck, The Associated Press reports.