MONTGOMERY, Ala. — An Alabama inmate gasped and coughed for about 13 minutes during his execution that used a drug that had drawn scrutiny in at least three other states.
Ronald Smith, 45, was executed Thursday at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., for the 1994 murder of Casey Wilson, a convenience store clerk.
According to journalists who were there, Smith also clenched his left fist and heaved his chest during the execution. The execution began at 10:30 p.m. Smith was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m.
The Alabama Department of Corrections issued a three-drug lethal injection combination that began with midazolam. Midazolam first came under scrutiny in 2014 after it was used in three botched executions in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma.
Oklahoma's use of midazolam as the first in a three-drug protocol was challenged after the April 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on a gurney, moaned and clenched his teeth for several minutes before prison officials tried to halt the process. Lockett died after 43 minutes. A state investigation into Lockett's execution revealed that a failed line caused the drugs to be administered locally instead of into Lockett's blood.
Ohio and Arizona have used midazolam as the first in a two-drug protocol. Ohio inmate Dennis McGuire repeatedly gasped and snorted over 26 minutes during his January 2014 execution. The state abandoned that method afterward and has yet to resume executions. Arizona halted executions after the July 2014 lethal injection of convicted killer Joseph Rudolph Wood, who took nearly two hours to die.
Smith had challenged Alabama's death penalty protocol, alleging that the state's death-penalty process would cause cruel and unusual pain because the first drug administered does not properly anesthetize the condemned before injecting the second and third drugs.
Without proper anesthetization, condemned inmates would feel burning and paralyzing sensations caused by the second and third drugs, the suit contended.
Midazolam is meant to anesthetize inmates beyond consciousness. The second drug is a paralytic and the third stops the heart.
After the midazolam was administered, a consciousness check was conducted per Department of Corrections protocol. A second consciousness check was also administered.
Kent Faulk, a reporter for The Birmingham News who witnessed Smith's execution Thursday and two others in the past, said this was the first time he has seen a consciousness check given twice.
Faulk said Smith moved his hand after the officer gave the second consciousness check.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that the department followed protocol for the execution, and would be seeking an autopsy for Smith.
"There will be an autopsy that will be done on Mr. Smith and if there were any irregularities those will hopefully be shown or borne out in the autopsy," said Dunn. "I think the question is probably better left to the medical experts."
When the warden asked Smith whether he wanted to comment before his execution began, Smith responded, "No ma'am." He continued to move his lips with his chaplain, media witnesses said.
Smith's family did not attend the execution. One member of Wilson's family, who wished to not be identified, was present.
A jury found Smith, then 24, guilty of capital murder in 1995. They sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Two months later, the judge overrode their decision and sentenced him to death. He cited the "particularly heinous" nature of the crime, pointing to evidence that indicated Smith killed Wilson "execution style."
Alabama is the only state in the country that allows a judge to override a jury's recommended sentence.
In January, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that Florida's sentencing scheme, which also allowed judicial override, was unconstitutional.
Following Hurst, the Delaware Supreme Court found that its sentencing scheme that also allowed judges to override juries also was unconstitutional.
Smith's attorneys petitioned the Supreme Court to stay the execution in light of Hurst. Despite issuing two temporary stays in the hours leading up to Smith's execution, the high court ultimately denied his appeal in a 4-4 split.
They filed another appeal asking the court to stay the execution that would have challenged the state's lethal injection protocol based on the lawsuit in which he was previously a plaintiff. The U.S. Supreme Court denied that petition as well.
Less than a month ago, the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution for Thomas Arthur, who also had challenged the death penalty protocol in legal action separate from Smith's.
The justices were again split 4-4 on whether to issue a stay, but Chief Justice John Roberts then cast a courtesy vote, allowing Arthur's execution to be delayed.
It was the 7th time Arthur avoided execution.
Smith's was the second execution in Alabama this year. Christopher Brooks was executed in January for a 1992 rape and murder.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Kelsey Davis on Twitter: @kdavistwelve