Alabama Execution: Ronald Bert Smith Jr. Struggles During Lethal Injection Procedure

Ronald Bert Smith Jr. was convicted for the 1994 murder of convenience store clerk Casey Wilson in Alabama. On Thursday night, the convicted killer was put to death by the state.

At 11:05 p.m., Smith was pronounced dead at the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama. During the 34-minute execution, witnesses saw the death row inmate struggle for breath, heave, and cough for about 13 minutes. Some say they observed Smith’s left eye open as well.

Ronald Bert Smith executed for 1994 slaying of Casey Wilson.
Ronald Bert Smith Jr. was put to death by the state of Alabama on Thursday. [Image by Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File]

Spectators also watched as prison officials performed two consciousness tests to verify Smith was not in pain. The tests involve saying the inmate’s name, brushing his eyelashes, and pinching the left arm. The 45-year-old convict moved his arm during the first test and raised his arm just after the second.

Smith’s reactions and movements have some questioning if the state needs to change its execution process. Two of the inmate’s attorneys were present and clearly had an issue with the process.

“We do know we followed our protocol. We are absolutely convinced of that,” said Alabama Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, as reported by CBS News.

“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.”

A sedative known as midazolam is the first of three drugs used in Alabama’s lethal injection procedure. The sedative is administered first and intended to sedate the prisoner. The second drug paralyzes the lungs, while the third stops the heart.

In previous court cases, including one brought by Smith, some attorneys and doctors have argued the sedative is unreliable for executions and could lead to pain when the two other drugs are administered. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled midazolam can be used. After Smith’s execution, his attorneys contend the convicted murdered was not properly anesthetized during the procedure.

Before the Alabama execution began, Smith was asked if he wanted to make a last statement. His last words on Earth were “no ma’am.” One family member of Casey Wilson witnessed Smith’s execution.

Casey Wilson was killed by Ronald Bert Smith Jr.
Ronald Bert Smith Jr. spent more than 20 years on death row in Alabama before being executed for the 1994 murder of Casey Wilson. [Image by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers]

On November 8, 1994, Ronald Bert Smith Jr. shot and killed Casey Wilson while attempting to rob a convenience store. Even though Wilson begged for mercy, Smith first shot the store clerk in the arm and then in the head. Wilson was the father of a newborn infant when he was killed.

According to court records, Smith was seen on surveillance video entering the store and picking up spent shell casings from the bathroom after shooting Wilson. During trial, the prosecution described Smith’s acts as “an execution style slaying.” While the jury in the case recommended life in prison for the inmate, the judge chose to impose a death sentence instead.

Originally scheduled for 6 p.m., Smith’s execution in Alabama was delayed twice Thursday night as attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay the execution. They argued the judge in the original case should not have been allowed to override the jury’s recommendation. Alabama is the only state to allow judicial override.

“Alabama is alone among the states in allowing a judge to sentence someone to death based on judicial fact finding contrary to a jury’s verdict,” Smith’s lawyers wrote.

Despite the attorney pleas, the Supreme Court ultimate refused to halt Smith’s execution. Four justices voted for a stay, one short of the number needed to stop the execution.

The execution of Ronald Bert Smith Jr. in Alabama is the second one for the state this year. His final meal consisted of fried chicken and French fries. In January, the state put Christopher Eugene Brooks to death for the 1993 rape and murder of a woman.

[Featured Image by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers]