Alabama Executes 74-Year-Old Murderer

AP – Alabama Executes 74-Year-Old Murderer

A 74-year-old murderer became the oldest U.S. inmate put to death in decades Thursday after courts and the governor refused to stop his execution. James Barney Hubbard died by injection at 6:36 p.m. at Holman Prison near Atmore. Hubbard was executed for the 1977 murder of 62-year-old Lillian Montgomery of Tuscaloosa. She was shot in the head and robbed after befriending Hubbard, who had been released from prison after serving 19 years for a 1957 killing.

Earlier Thursday, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to deny a stay for Hubbard. His attorney contended the execution would amount to cruel and unusual punishment for someone so old and mentally incompetent. Gov. Bob Riley rejected a request to commute Hubbard’s sentence for what he called a “heinous and violent” crime. “Justice has not been swift in this case, but justice must be delivered,” Riley said.

According to the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Hubbard is the oldest person executed in the United States since 1941, when James Stephens of Colorado was executed at age 76.

In his filing with the Supreme Court, defense attorney Alan Rose said that although “Hubbard’s age-based execution claim appears to raise a novel issue,” it was in line with other claims of cruel and unusual punishment. The state in arguing for the execution said that “murderers — especially repeat killers like Hubbard — do not deserve `leniency’ merely because their life of crime does not result in the imposition of a death sentence until later in life.”

The story does not explain why it has taken 27 years to execute Hubbard. Nor does the Birmingham News account, other than a vague line from his attorney.

Hubbard’s attorney said there was a good reason it took 27 years to carry out the death sentence. “It’s because judges have been very troubled by some of the claims we have raised,” Rose said.

Interestingly, Amnesty International gives the best explanation I can find:

James Hubbard was tried in September 1977 and sentenced to death. After Alabama̢۪s death penalty statute was found unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in 1980, Hubbard was granted a new trial. He was again sentenced to death in April 1982. His appeals have been unsuccessful, including on the claim that his statement to the police had been involuntary on account of his alcoholism and low intelligence. His IQ has been assessed at 80, in the borderline mental retardation range.

So, we have a rather rich irony here: Hubbard was sentenced to death almost immediately after the crime, at which point he was 47 years old, and has spent 27 years with one unsuccessful appeal after another. Then he claimed it would be cruel to execute him because he was an old man!

The Birmingham News account, at least, presents the views of the victim’s family.

Six members of Montgomery’s family watched Hubbard die. I personally was glad to see this part of our lives end today, and maybe we can get on down the road with some of the things we’ve been trying to do,” said her oldest son, Jimmy Montgomery. He expressed disappointment that Hubbard’s life appeared to end so peacefully. “I’d just as soon see the electric chair still in use or maybe the firing squad. It seems like he just dozed off,” said the 66-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel.

Hubbard’s body was released to his daughter, Barbara McKinney, who witnessed the execution but did not speak afterward.


Montgomery’s family, watching from a separate room, held hands. Some wept. At a press conference after the death, Jimmy Montgomery said he prayed for Hubbard’s daughter. “It’s tough, I’m sure, sitting there seeing your daddy die, but it was tough – us getting the word that our mother’s head had been blown off,” he said. The Montgomerys said Hubbard’s lack of remorse particularly troubled them.

A rather bizarre tale. Regardless of one’s views of the death penalty, it is unconscionable that the Montgomery family had to endure 27 years without closure on this. The idea that frivolous appeals should be able to be filed endlessly, limited only by the imagination of attorneys, is outrageous.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Policing, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anon says:

    Reminds me of the story of the man who murdered both parents and then asked for clemency because he was an orphan.

  2. legion says:

    Dude. It is hardly the attorneys’ fault for this delay; it is the system that allows such time to pass. In other words, “hate the game, not the playa”…

    While I am in favor of keeping the death penalty, it is obvious that our current system for meting it out is badly broken…

  3. James Joyner says:

    Sure, it’s the system. I’m merely pointing out that one can hardly claim that the man’s too old to be executed after spending 27 years delaying his execution!

  4. Joseph Marshall says:

    “The idea that frivolous appeals should be able to be filed endlessly, limited only by the imagination of attorneys, is outrageous.”

    Anyone who is outraged by it should take the logical next step and take a stance defining an intelligible principle for when an appeal ceases to be “serious” and becomes “frivolous”. It’s not that easy to do. Certainly not as easy as working up a good case of outrage. And I’m sure no one here would question the need for the principle when we mete out a sentence of death.

    We have inherited an adversarial system of justice in this country, and this is the consequence of it when the punishment is death, which cannot be mitigated or compensated if given unjustly.

    A man imprisoned can appeal till the cows come home but he is still serving his sentence, for whatever “closure” it gives to his victims. It is only because we have chosen to give death, which cannot be measured in days, that the problem exists at all. Is death just? Maybe. But a justice so irreversable can only be exercised justly by Omnicience when there is no avenue of appeal.

    Justice was woefully delayed so justice was unquestionably denied here. But until someone is willing to say specifically where the right of appeal should stop, and we should take on the burden of Omnicience whether just or not, he should not complain too loudly.

    For in the end, if the victim’s family did not receive justice (and I think they didn’t), the victim’s son was clearly asking for more than justice, for death with suffering rather than mere death, which is what the notion of “cruel and unusual punishment” is all about.

  5. Tiger says:

    I have long been of the opinion that any execution must be completed within a year of sentencing date or be automatically commuted to a life sentence. There would be a specialized, expedited appeals process through both the state and the federal government, without involvement of attorneys where both systems solely review the record to ensure that due process was met, the evidence was sufficent to sustain the conviction and sentence, and that adequate assistance of counsel was provided at all pertinent times. The highest court in each jurisdiction appoints a board to conduct these reviews, and both such review boards would have to approve the convictin and sentence in such a timely fashion that the actual execution date be held on or before the 365th day following the pronouncement of the death sentence.

  6. The Monk says:

    Anti-death penalty absolutists are the type who would seek leniency for a client who killed his own parents on the grounds that he is an orphan. This case is similar in form to the Washington state case from a few years back. The state statute made death by hanging the default if the condemned did not select lethal injection. One condemned ate himself from a normal size upon incarceration into a fat 400-pound blob, didn’t choose lethal injection, then sought stays of execution on the basis that because he was so fat, he would likely be decapitated in the hanging and that would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

    Ultimately, Washington revised its law retroactively.

  7. Kathy K says:

    Considering all the appeals necessary (and I do think they are necessary) with the death penalty, life in prison with no parole is cheaper. I’m in favor of the death penalty only when it is administered on the spot by the intended victim(s) or person(s) defending the intended victim(s).