A prison inmate executed in Alabama Thursday night appeared to remain partially conscious for about 13 minutes after receiving a lethal injection shot, a grisly incident that raises further questions about the humaneness and efficacy of the procedure.
Ronald Bert Smith Jr. was put to death at Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility after the Supreme Court, split 4-4 due to the vacancy left after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last February, refused to grant him stay of execution. The 45-year-old Smith, who was convicted of the execution-style murder of a convenience store clerk in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1994, was declared dead at 11:05 p.m., about 34 minutes after he received a cocktail of three lethal injection drugs.
Reporters from the Associated Press and local news site AL.com, who were present for the execution, said Smith periodically “heaved and coughed” for about 13 minutes after he was injected, and also appeared to clench his fists and raise his head. His left eye reportedly appeared to open at times, and his lips were seen moving.
Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn refused to say whether anything had gone wrong during the execution. “We do know we followed our protocol,” Dunn said, according to the AP. “We are absolutely convinced of that.”
Prison officials said an autopsy will be performed on Smith’s body to check for any “irregularities” in the execution.
Smith’s lawyers had argued for the execution to be postponed, claiming Alabama’s procedure amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. He said that when the state first tried its new three-drug lethal injection protocol earlier this year, the inmate who received the deadly drug cocktail appeared to open one of his eyes before death.
One of the drugs used by Alabama is midazolam, a sedative that has previously been involved in botched executions elsewhere in the country. When Oklahoma used midazolam and two other drugs to execute inmate Clayton Lockett in 2014, the prisoner groaned, spoke out loud, and moved his hands and head for several minutes. One witness described Lockett’s execution as being “like a horror movie.”
The Supreme Court has upheld the use of midazolam in executions, but Justice Elena Kagan said the court heard evidence that lethal injections involving the drug only paralyze prisoners as they slowly die, making them feel as though they are being “burned alive from the inside.” Lethal injections drugs are increasingly hard to come by in the U.S., since most pharmaceutical companies have refused to sell them to prisons for use in executions.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas issued a temporary stay of execution for Smith at at 5:14 p.m. on Thursday, but Chief Justice John Roberts vacated the order about two hours later. The court split on whether to give Smith a reprieve. In another death penalty case last month where the court was evenly divided, Roberts granted the stay of execution. The chief justice did not explain his decision on Thursday.
The judge in Smith’s case sentenced him to death despite the fact that his jury voted 7-5 to recommend he receive life without parole. Alabama is the only state that allows so-called “judicial override” in death penalty sentences.
The next scheduled execution in the U.S. will be in Texas on Jan. 11.