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Advocates Call Alabama Execution an 'Avoidable Disaster'

Image: Advocates Call Alabama Execution an 'Avoidable Disaster'

Ronald Bert Smith Jr. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)

Saturday, 10 Dec 2016 10:27 AM

Defenders of a condemned inmate in Alabama are calling his execution an "avoidable disaster."

For 13 minutes after he was sedated to avoid an unconstitutionally painful death, Ronald Bert Smith Jr. was seen coughing, gasping and moving.

Smith's legal team says these movements Thursday night show "he was not anesthetized at any point during the agonizingly long procedure."

Alabama's Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn disputes that Smith was in pain after being injected with midazolam, a sedative some states are using now that pharmaceutical companies are refusing to make other drugs available for executions.

Smith was sentenced to die for shooting convenience store clerk Casey Wilson in 1994, a robbery that prosecutors described as an execution-style murder.

His final movements will likely be fiercely debated as Alabama resumes executions after years of litigation and a drug shortage created by campaigns against the death penalty. Inmate advocates argue that Alabama's process is too flawed and secretive, raising the risk of botched executions.

Smith coughed and heaved his chest repeatedly during the 30-minute execution process and appeared to move his arms slightly after two tests were administered to determine consciousness.

Attorneys with the Alabama Federal Defenders Program, who watched the execution, issued a statement expressing profound disappointment "that the state and courts failed to intervene at any stage and take steps to prevent this avoidable disaster."

Dunn said Alabama's execution protocol has been upheld by the courts, and he disputed that the condemned man felt any pain.

"Early in the execution, Smith, with eyes closed, did cough but at no time during the execution was there observational evidence that he suffered," Dunn's statement said, noting that an "autopsy will determine if there were any irregularities."

"No autopsy can measure the extent of Ron Smith's suffering as he died," his lawyers said.

This was Alabama's second execution using midazolam to render an inmate unconscious before injections of rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride were used to stop the lungs and heart.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last year that midazolam wasn't proven to violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates have continued to challenge its use, saying it is a sedative, not an anesthetic, and cannot reliably render a person unconscious.

"I think we saw last night what we, unfortunately, have seen so many times before, which is that midazolam, which was never intended to be used this way, is not effective and can't be used this way," said Cassandra Stubbs, who directs the capital punishment project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Arizona, Ohio and Florida also have used midazolam. Mississippi and Arkansas, which have not executed an inmate in several years, have also announced plans to use the sedative. Virginia has approved its use as well.

Critics have pointed to problems with midazolam in other states' executions. In Ohio, inmate Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped and snorted for more than 26 minutes while being put to death. In Arizona, Joseph Rudolph Wood gasped and snorted for more than 90 minutes after his execution began.

Soon after Smith received the first injection, he clenched his fists and raised his head before letting it fall back onto the gurney. Then, he coughed and heaved his torso repeatedly for 13 minutes.

A corrections officer gave Smith two consciousness checks, which involved stroking the area around his eyes, saying his name and pinching his left arm. If the inmate does not respond, the warden from the control room administers the final two drugs, Dunn said.

Smith's lawyers believe the state gave him an additional dose of midazolam after he moved his arm slightly in response to the first consciousness test, but Dunn declined to say if a second dose was used, saying the department won't discuss specifics of the protocol.

The first check was given about 10:37 p.m. Smith's left arm moved slightly after the pinch. A second check was performed 10 minutes later. Smith did not immediately respond but shortly afterward, his right hand and lower arm appeared to lift up slightly.

Smith's breathing and coughing then slowed to the point they were no longer visible. The curtains to the viewing room closed at 10:59 p.m. A prison system spokesman said a doctor pronounced Smith dead at 11:05 p.m.

Alabama has been trying to resume executions after a lull caused by a shortage of execution drugs and litigation. The state executed Christopher Eugene Brooks in January for the 1993 rape and beating of a woman that caused her death. That was Alabama's first execution using midazolam, and apparently went as planned, causing the inmate no obvious signs of distress.

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Defenders of a condemned inmate in Alabama are calling his execution an avoidable disaster.
US, Death Penalty, Alabama, execution, midazolam, arizona, ohio, Ronald Bert Smith Jr.
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2016-27-10
Saturday, 10 Dec 2016 10:27 AM
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