A botched lethal injection ends in agony

Ronald B. Smith appeared to be conscious and gasping for breath during his lethal injection.

CREDIT: Alabama Department of Corrections via AP
CREDIT: Alabama Department of Corrections via AP

On Thursday night, Ronald B. Smith became the latest death row inmate to suffer during a lethal injection. The Alabama prisoner heaved and gasped for air for 13 minutes on the execution table, and there were reportedly no attempts to stop the procedure.

Smith’s 34-minute execution, consisting of the injection of a three-drug cocktail, began shortly after 10:30pm. But after the first drug, midazolam, was administered to render him unconscious, it was evident that Smith was conscious and in excruciating pain.

According to, he “appeared to be struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist.” The head of the Department of Corrections (DOC) stepped in to test his level of consciousness by “calling out Smith’s name, brushing his eyebrows back, and pinching him under his left arm,” but the coughing and gasping didn’t let up. Smith also moved his right arm and hand after a second consciousness test was conducted.

In total, Smith’s suffering lasted between 10:34 and 10:47, at which point the remaining drugs were injected. Per Alabama Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn’s own admission, there was no talk of halting the procedure and that the executioners stuck closely to “protocol.”


Smith ultimately died at 11:05, but his torturous demise is just the latest in a spate of botched executions involving midazolam, a controversial sedative at the heart of major legal battles in the past two years.

Scientists and pharmacologists agree that “midazolam is incapable of inducing a ‘deep, comalike unconsciousness,” like other sedatives administered during past executions. The medical community, legal experts, and human rights advocates call the use of midazolam — an unregulated drug that isn’t approved by the Federal Drug Administration for lethal injection — cruel and unusual.

In 2015, the controversy made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which dealt a huge blow to opponents of the death penalty. In the final opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled that there must always be a mechanism to administer the death penalty, regardless of its reliability.

Smith was one of five death row inmates who filed a lawsuit against Alabama for its new use of midazolam as the sedative in the three-part cocktail. They said that midazolam wouldn’t be effective in masking the pain associated with the other two drugs used to stop heart and lung function. In lieu of the three drugs, the five prisoners fought to be executed with one hefty dose of midazolam.