Use of midazolam in Alabama execution questioned after inmate's 13-minute pain

Robert Bert Smith heaved, coughed and clenched his left fist during the execution process

Picture for representation
Picture for representation Reuters

The drug midazolam used in Alabama prison to sedate prisoners before putting them to death has come under severe criticism after the inmate Robert Bert Smith Jr. was believed to have suffered following the first shot of three lethal injections.

According to, whose reporter Kent Faulk was present during the execution, Smith seemed to be in pain. It was reported that during a 13-minute span, Smith "appeared to be struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist." At some instances, even his eyes appeared to be slightly open.

The 45-year-old, who was convicted for the fatal shooting of a Huntsville store clerk named Casey Wilson in 1994, was pronounced dead at 11:05 pm after two consciousness tests were performed on him. The execution process began around 10:25 pm at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

However, according to Gulf News the state prison commissioner said that he did not notice any such movement and is fully convinced that proper protocol was followed. "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. I think the question is probably better left to the medical experts," said Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn on 8 December. It is also to be noted that Dunn refused to answer if Smith was treated with an additional dose of the sedative after the first consciousness test.

Meanwhile, ABC News reported that Smith's legal team argued that his movement during the execution proved that he was not sedated and had to endure the long painful procedure. The lawyers, responding to the commissioner's statement on an autopsy report, said, "No autopsy can measure the extent of Ron Smith's suffering as he died."

Alabama's use of midazolam was challenged before after inmates appeared to suffer when treated with the combination of three drugs. In 2014, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett moaned and clenched his teeth. The reactions were so severe that prison officials tried to halt the process. It was later revealed that the drug was mistakenly injected into his tissue and not into his bloodstream. Other inmates also argued that drug does not make a person unconscious as it is a mere sedative and not an anaesthetic.

Midazolam is injected as the first shot before lethal drugs to stop the heart and lungs are administered. The Supreme Court approved the use of midazolam in executions in a 5-4 ruling in 2015.