Alabama Execution Raises Questions About Drug Used In Lethal Injections
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
An execution in the state of Alabama is raising more questions about a controversial drug used in lethal injections. Late last night, Alabama executed Ronald Bert Smith, a convicted murderer. In that process, the state gave him midazolam, a sedative. Smith's lawyers had objected to using that drug. Death penalty opponents say it is ineffective and that prisoners go through excruciating pain caused by the lethal drugs. The Supreme Court has ruled midazolam can be used, and it was in this case.
Kent Faulk, a reporter for The Birmingham News, witnessed the execution. And at the beginning of the execution, he says he watched as Smith heaved, coughed and appeared to move. I spoke to him by Skype.
KENT FAULK: The whole process began about 10:25. Several minutes into it, the process of putting the midazolam in through the IVs apparently began. And soon after that, Mr. Smith began I guess gasping for breath. His chest would heave up. His hips - I guess he was trying to get off of the gurney that he was strapped onto. I guess I could describe it best as a kind of a guppy-out-of-water gasping, and that lasted for about 13 minutes. He would also intermittently start coughing. And at one point, he clenched his left fist.
SHAPIRO: Faulk says a state corrections captain then performed what's called a consciousness check. It has three parts.
FAULK: He calls out the name loudly, then brushes the eye back and then pinches the inmate behind his left arm. They did that consciousness test during the middle of him coughing and everything, and then they waited for a while and administered the test a second time.
SHAPIRO: And in your view, did he respond to the consciousness test?
FAULK: It was hard to tell because he was coughing and gasping for breath. So I don't know if that was voluntary or involuntary.
SHAPIRO: You have witnessed other executions using these drugs. Is the coughing and gasping for breath typical?
FAULK: Of three lethal injections I have witnessed, that was the first time I've seen an inmate make movements like that.
SHAPIRO: And yet the execution proceeded.
FAULK: Correct, and his attorneys were there in the witness room, obviously upset with what was going on and disagreed. But finally they administered the next two drugs, and the whole execution lasted 34 minutes.
SHAPIRO: We should say that another reporter who was present at the execution gave a similar description. Meanwhile, it sounds like the prisoner's attorneys argued that he was conscious. What did state prison officials tell you?
FAULK: They told us that it went to protocol. Now, to note, we don't know all the details of that protocol, what that is. They keep part of their protocol secret.
SHAPIRO: For you as a journalist watching this execution, seeing him coughing, gasping for breath, what was going through your mind?
FAULK: I was wondering what was going on. As the prison commissioner said afterwards, you know, they were looking into whether there were any irregularities, but obviously something wasn't going right.
SHAPIRO: After the execution, the commissioner said they would look into whether there were any irregularities despite having gone forward with the execution in the moment.
FAULK: Well, they said that they would have an autopsy performed, and any irregularities would be noted. I don't think they were admitting that there were irregularities, but something wasn't going the way they thought it should be apparently with the gasping and that kind of thing. But I don't know. I mean it's something I never witnessed before.
SHAPIRO: That's Kent Faulk, a reporter with The Birmingham News. Thank you very much.
FAULK: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: And in a statement, Smith's legal team called the execution a, quote, "avoidable disaster" and said they would work to prevent more cases like it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.