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Alabama Inmate Starts Coughing and Heaving 13 Minutes Into Execution

A man who killed an Alabama convenience store clerk more than two decades ago was put to death Thursday night, in an execution that required two consciousness tests as the inmate heaved and coughed 13 minutes into the lethal injection.

Ronald Bert Smith Jr., 45, was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m., about 30 minutes after the procedure began at the state prison in southwest Alabama.

Smith was convicted of capital murder in the Nov. 8, 1994, fatal shooting of Huntsville store clerk Casey Wilson. A jury voted 7-5 to recommend a sentence of life imprisonment, but a judge overrode that recommendation and sentenced Smith to death.

Smith heaved and coughed repeatedly, clenching his fists and raising his head at the beginning of the execution. A prison guard performed two consciousness checks before the final two lethal drugs were administered. During the first one, Smith moved his arm. He slightly raised his right arm again after the second consciousness test.

The meaning of those movements will likely be debated. One of Smith’s attorneys whispered to another attorney, “He’s reacting,” and pointed out the inmate’s repeated movements.

The state prison commissioner said he did not see any reaction to the consciousness tests.

“We do know we followed our protocol. We are absolutely convinced of that,” Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said Thursday evening. “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,” Dunn said when asked if the movement’s indicated the state’s process should be changed.

Alabama uses the sedative midazolam as the first drug in a three-drug lethal injection combination. Smith and other inmates argued in a court case that the drug was an unreliable sedative and could cause them to feel pain, citing its use in problematic executions. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the use of the drug.

Smith replied, “No ma’am” when asked by the prison warden if he had any final words. A member of Wilson’s family, who was not identified, witnessed the execution. The victim’s family did not make a statement.

Smith, the son of a NASA contract employee, became an Eagle Scout at 15, but his life spiraled downward because of alcoholism, according to a clemency request to Alabama’s governor. He had a final meal of fried chicken and french fries and was visited during the day by his parents and son.


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