NORTH IDAHO – An Alabama inmate was put to death by lethal injection earlier in December and the story garnered a lot of attention nationwide because witnesses reported the inmate gasped and coughed for 13 minutes after getting the first dose.
Although it happened in Alabama, a man in North Idaho had intimate knowledge of the execution and the legal journey from the beginning. That is because that North Idaho man is the uncle of the Alabama inmate put to death.
“I’m not contesting whether the death penalty is right or wrong that’s not my job and I’m not big enough for that,” Rich Shaffer, the uncle of Ronald Smith said.
What Shaffer will tell you is the highly disputed subject of capital punishment landed squarely in the middle of his family’s life – revealing what he calls a system filled with flaws.
“My main concern is that as a civilized society in America we can do a better job.”
The story begins decades ago. Shaffer knew his nephew Ronald as a good kid – an Eagle scout, a member of honor society. Shaffer moved away eventually to North Idaho as Ronald grew older in Alabama.
“Whatever motivated my nephew to take this path is just unfathomable,” Shaffer said. “I don’t know how it comes in to some person’s mind – any person’s mind – to commit murder.”
It was the overnight hours of November 8, 1994. Ronald pulled a gun on an Alabama store clerk, Casey Wilson. Court documents said when the cash register would not open, Ronald pistol-whipped Casey and ultimately shot him through the head.
“It’s also said that Casey was begging for his life, which was disregarded by my nephew.”
Shaffer makes no excuses for his nephew. He said he is sorry for Casey and his family. This crime left Casey’s wife without a husband, his new baby without a father, and forced Shaffer’s family to rearrange everything they thought they knew about Ronald.
Shaffer accepted his nephew would be locked away forever. A couple months later though, an Alabama judge overruled the jury’s recommendation of life in prison and sentenced Ronald to death. Other states have ruled that kind of judicial override is unconstitutional.
In fact, Alabama is the sole state to still allow it. It is something the American Bar Association has urged the state to return the power to the jury for death penalty decisions.
When Alabama Governor Robert Bentley was asked to issue a stay of execution for Ronald. He declined. So on the evening of December 8, Ronald was set to die. The execution was twice stalled that night by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Shaffer contends that is torture in itself, not just to the inmate, but to all families involved.
“To have a person on death row 45 minutes from being executed and all of a sudden you’re released,” Shaffer said. “That’s not a release of stress that’s just a continuation of pain.”
On December 8, Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility staff administered the first of a three drug execution cocktail – starting with a controversial drug Midazolam.
A variety of headlines give a glimpse to what followed. Midazolam is supposed to put the inmate in a coma-like state. Only to be followed by the drugs that kill. Instead, some witnesses said the drug prompted Ronald to start coughing and gasping – lasting for about 13 minutes.
“I believe 17 minutes into it he was still have sensation. He was still having physical reaction to the consciousness test that they were giving him. How wrong can that be?” Shaffer asked.
When we contacted the Alabama Department of Corrections and the office of Alabama Governor Robert Bentley for any response about the execution of Ronald Smith and the use of Midazolam neither answered our list of direct questions.
The governor’s office simply reissued a statement by the department of corrections that said they followed an established protocol which had been upheld as constitutional.
“Early in the execution,” the statement read, “Smith, with eyes closed, did cough but at no time during the execution was there observational evidence that he suffered. Smith was pronounced dead at 11:05 p.m. An autopsy will determine if there were any irregularities.”
This is not the first time the drug Midazolam has drawn fire. Critics said it did not do what was intended and caused undue suffering. In other executions, including one in Oklahoma which prompted a sharply divided Supreme Court decision, the court ruled 5-4 it is not cruel and unusual punishment to use the sedative midazolam to carry out lethal injection.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion.
“The prisoners failed to establish that Oklahoma’s use of a massive dose of Midazolam in its execution protocol entails a substantial risk of severe pain.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion.
“It would not matter whether the state intended to use Midazolam or instead have petitioners drawn and quartered, slowly tortured to death, or actually burned at the stake.”
Shaffer is aware many people will believe his nephew deserves exactly what he got, but he hopes others will give greater thought to a process he never dreamed would directly impact his life.
“I don’t know what the end result is,” Shaffer said. “I’m just trying to bring more awareness to some disparities that we can do better as a human race.”