Last week the state of Alabama executed Robert Bryant Melson for the 1994 homicide of Tamika Collins, Nathaniel Baker and Darrell Collier, during the robbery of a Gadsden fast-food restaurant where the three victims worked. Melson’s execution was Alabama’s second in two weeks.
In the two days leading up to his execution, Melson had been visited by his uncle, his brother, his cousin, his aunt and two lawyers. The day of the execution, Melson refused both breakfast and a final meal and made no special requests, according to prison officials.
Prior to the scheduled 6 p.m. execution, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay, delaying the procedure while justices considered Melson’s last-minute legal challenges involving the use of midazolam in the lethal injection protocol. Experts say midazolam can fail to work in high-stress situations, and in the December execution of Ronald Bert Smith here in Alabama the inmate coughed and heaved for 13 minutes after being administered the drug.
The Supreme Court lifted its stay at about 9:10 p.m. without comment, allowing the execution to move forward.
At around 9:30 p.m., five members of the media, including a Lagniappe reporter, were moved by prison van from a nearby media center to a witness room just outside Holman Correctional Facility’s execution chamber.
After a few minutes of waiting in the witness room, which was lit by one salmon-colored light, the brown-blue curtain concealing the chamber itself from the witness room was drawn back. Revealed was Melson, an African-American man, strapped to a gurney with IVs entering the backs of both his hands. The execution chamber was small and austere, with 14 rows of bare fluorescent bulbs overhead lighting up the inmate lying below.
Moments later, at about 9:54 p.m., the prison’s warden read the death warrant and asked Melson for any last words. Melson shook his head “no,” and the warden and an assistant left the room, leaving only Melson, a prison guard and a chaplain.
At about 9:57 p.m., the chaplain knelt beside Melson momentarily, placing his hand over the condemned inmate’s and appearing to pray. As the chaplain moved away and the execution began about a minute later, Melson’s hands, chest and face visibly began shaking against the restraints, movement that lessened, but lasted until about 10:01 p.m.
At 10:03, the African-American male guard performed consciousness tests, first saying “inmate Melson” three times without response. The guard then pushed back Melson’s left eyelid three times and pinched the back of his left arm. Melson did not react.
By 10:07 p.m., Melson’s breathing had ceased completely and his lips began turning purple, but both his fists were still clenched with his thumb inside.
At that point, around 10:15, members of the press were moved from the witness room back to the media center. On the way, prison spokesman Bob Horton confirmed Melson’s time of death as 10:27 p.m.
After the execution, family members of those murdered by Melson released a statement decrying the inmate’s fight for an execution without suffering.
“He has been on death row for over 21 years being supported by the state of Alabama and feels he should not suffer a little pain during the execution,” the statement, which was read to the press by the state’s prisons commissioner, said. “What does he think those three people suffered after he shot them, leaving them in a freezer?”
Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall also commented on Melson’s execution.
“Robert Melson’s decades-long avoidance of justice is over,” Marshall said in a statement. “For 23 years, the families of the three young people whose lives he took, as well as a survivor, have waited for closure and healing. That process can finally begin tonight.”
Gov. Kay Ivey, who denied a clemency request from Melson, also released a statement on the execution.
“As governor, I do not relish the responsibility that I hold related to executions of those convicted of capital murder in this state. However, it is my duty and my charge, on behalf of the people of Alabama, to ensure that justice is done, by both the victims and the convicted,” Ivey said.
“I have given the facts of this case and Mr. Melson’s request for clemency the highest level of scrutiny and review. After carefully considering the nature of this crime, a triple murder in a public restaurant, the evidence presented to and considered by a jury, and the mitigating factors presented by Mr. Melson, I determined that justice and the law of this state required me to deny his clemency petition and to allow the punishment to be carried out.
“Mr. Melson murdered three people and attempted to murder a fourth, while the victims were trying to do their best to earn a living and provide for their families. Our court system has done its job in this matter and his convictions have been upheld. Accordingly, the laws of this state have been carried out. It is my prayer that, with tonight’s events, the victims’ families can finally have closure.”
Some in Alabama politics used the execution, however, as a means of pointing to larger issues with the death penalty in the Heart of Dixie.
Alabama State Sen. Dick Brewbaker, who announced he will not run for re-election, said the execution should be a chance for the state to scrutinize its death penalty system.
“In light of the most recent execution, I’d like to remind my GOP colleagues that [Alabama’s] death penalty process isn’t as sound or fair as we think,” Brewbaker tweeted after the execution. “It’s time to revisit the idea of an Innocence Commission or at least establish conviction integrity units in each circuit.”
While Alabama currently has no other inmates with execution dates set, there are 182 people on death row here in the state.