An Alabama inmate startled wardens and witnesses during his execution Dec. 8 when he started heaving and coughing 13 minutes into the lethal injection.
Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, received the death sentence in 1994 after killing convenience store clerk Casey Wilson, according to The Associated Press. Although the jury voted 7-5 in favor of life imprisonment, the judge overrode the decision, handing down a death sentence.
The judge likened the murder to an execution, as Smith ignored Wilson's pleas for mercy. Wilson was pistol-whipped into near-unconsciousness and then shot. He had a newborn child when he was murdered.
Four of eight U.S. Supreme Court justices said that they would have stepped in to halt Smith's execution, respecting the sentence recommended by the jury, but they were one justice short of being able to take action and the lethal injection went ahead as planned, according to The Washington Post.
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The process requires three separate injections. The first is the sedative midazolam, administered so the inmate will not feel pain when injected with the subsequent lethal substances. Midazolam's actions can be spotty and unreliable, and some lawyers say those on who the death sentence is carried out can still feel pain.
That appeared to be the case for Smith, whose execution took 34 minutes. After being administered the sedative, he clenched his fist, leading the warden to perform two separate consciousness tests. According to witnesses, Smith moved his arm during the first one and clenched his fist during the second. Nonetheless, the state prison commissioner declared him unconscious, saying he detected no conscious movements.
The first lethal injection was then administered. Thirteen minutes later, The Washington Post reports that Smith was struggling for breath and coughing and heaving. About 20 minutes later, Smith was pronounced dead.
"We do know we followed our protocol. We are absolutely convinced of that," said Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn. "There will be an autopsy that will be done on Mr. Smith and if there were any irregularities those will hopefully be shown or born out in the autopsy. I think the question is probably better left to the medical experts."
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Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange celebrated Smith's death. "The trial court described Smith's acts as 'an execution style slaying.' Tonight, justice was finally served," he said in a statement.
An unnamed member of Wilson's family was in attendance to watch the execution, reports AP. When a prison warden asked if Smith had any last words, he replied "No ma'am."