In 1995 Ronald Bert Smith, Jr. was convicted of killing convenient store clerk Casey Wilson. After Smith’s confession, a jury recommended that he spent the rest of his life in prison for the brutal slaying. A judge would overrule this decision two months later, and Smith was sentenced to death for the particularly heinous nature of the crime.
Currently, the state of Alabama is the only state that recognizes judicial overrides. Smith, with the help of his attorneys, had spent the better part of the last two decades petitioning Alabama’s Supreme Court to overturn the judge’s ruling in his case, but ultimately they decided to uphold Smith’s death sentence.
In the days leading up to Smith’s execution date he, once again, petitioned the courts, asking for them to issue a stay based on Florida’s ruling earlier this year that judicial overrides in capital punishment cases were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court had decided to issue Smith the stay before lifting it the same day he was scheduled to be executed by the state. A second stay was issued, but again it was lifted that same day.
By 10:25 p.m., Smith was strapped to a table and connected to a machine designed to introduce the heart-stopping drug cocktail that would ultimately end his life.
Witnesses to Smith’s execution say that he withered and coughed as he tried desperately to breathe for a solid 13 minutes. Twice prison officials had conducted consciousness tests, both of which determined that Smith had still been alive. Finally, at 11:05 p.m., Smith was declared dead by a physician.
Smith, who makes the 20th death row inmate to be executed in 2016, has since been a subject of controversy in the death penalty debate. Some are calling Smith’s death cruel and unusual punishment and have called in to question a vital drug in the lethal cocktail used to execute inmates.
Midazolam, the first drug administered in the lethal mixture, has been linked to several botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona. In the case of Joseph Wood it took nearly two hours for the condemned to be declared dead. In two other botched executions attributed to midazolam, the condemned were witnessed gasping for breath and choking as they struggled to get air into their lungs for 20 or more minutes.
According to Smith’s lawyers, Ronald Bert Smith, Jr. can now be added to this growing list of botched executions linked to midazolam.
The choice to use midazolam in lethal injections came about after anti-death penalty groups pressured pharmaceutical companies to stop providing certain drugs to prisons within the United States. Forced to find alternatives, lawmakers determined midazolam to be the most effective drug available to sedate an inmate during the execution process.
With midazolam becoming the focus of the debate on what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” prison systems across the country may soon be scrambling to find alternatives within the coming years.