Death Penalty

Alabama inmate 'heaved and coughed' during execution

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Lethal injection.

An Alabama inmate who was executed on Thursday night appeared to struggle during the execution, causing one of his lawyers to remark that he had warned prison officials a contingency plan was needed if the execution didn’t go smoothly.

The inmate, Ronald Bert Smith Jr., was executed after the U.S. Supreme Court issued two temporary stays, then allowed the execution to proceed, report, CBS News and the New York Times. Smith had claimed in a suit that the first drug in the execution cocktail may not be sufficient to prevent pain from the next two drugs. described Smith’s struggle during the execution this way: “During 13 minutes of the execution, from about 10:34 to 10:47, Smith appeared to be struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist after apparently being administered the first drug in the three-drug combination. At times his left eye also appeared to be slightly open.”

A Department of Corrections official performed two consciousness checks before drugs to stop the heart and breathing were administered. During the check, the official called out Smith’s name, brushed his eyebrows back, and pinched him on the arm.

According to, “Smith continued to heave, gasp and cough after the first test was performed at 10:37 p.m. and again at 10:47 p.m. After the second one, Smith’s right arm and hand moved.”

Alabama Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn said he didn’t see any problems from his vantage point. “From where I was seated I didn’t see any reaction to the consciousness assessment,” he said.

Appeals by Smith’s lawyers had focused not on the drug issue, but instead on the Alabama law that allows judges to override juror sentencing recommendations. Jurors had recommended life in prison without parole for Smith, but the judge overrode jurors and imposed the death penalty. Only Alabama allows for judicial override.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld use of the execution sedative midazolam, the drug used by Alabama, in an Eighth Amendment challenge.

Four U.S. Supreme Court justices would have stopped the execution: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. One more justice’s vote would have been needed to delay the procedure.

Smith was convicted of murdering a convenience store clerk.

Hat tip to the Marshall Project.

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