FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Is Alabama Hiding Evidence It Tortured Two of Its Citizens?

Before Ronald Bert Smith’s corpse grew cold – following his patently botched execution by lethal injection on December 8, 2016 – authorities in Alabama launched a campaign of obfuscation and misinformation about what happened to him.

It began when Prison Commissioner Jeff Dunn, himself a witness to Smith’s execution, protested: “Early in the execution, Smith, with eyes closed, did cough but at no time during the execution was there observational evidence that he suffered.”

Dunn not only doth protest too much, Dunn lied.

Because if you credit the macabre and unambiguous accounts of the unbiased media witnesses in attendance – not only is there a great deal of “observational evidence” Smith suffered – the publicly available information suggests he suffered a painfully slow, torturous death.

Kent Faulk, a reporter for Alabama’s largest media outlet (al.com) and a witness to previous state executions, appeared eerily pale and shaken as he questioned Dunn on camera immediately following Smith’s death. The next day, Faulk posted a piece titled “Alabama Death Row inmate Ronald Bert Smith heaved, coughed for 13 minutes during execution”; it includes several chilling hallmarks of an execution gone wrong:

During 13 minutes of the execution, from about 10:34 to 10:47, Smith appeared to be struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist after apparently being administered the first drug in the three-drug combination. At times his left eye also appeared to be slightly open. A Department of Corrections captain performed two consciousness checks before they proceeded with administering the next two drugs to stop his breathing and heart. The consciousness tests consist of the corrections officer calling out Smith’s name, brushing his eyebrows back, and pinching him under his left arm. Smith continued to heave, gasp, and cough after the first test was performed at 10:37 p.m. and again at 10:47 p.m. After the second one, Smith’s right arm and hand moved.

In “Witnessing death: AP reporters describe problem executions,” Kim Chandler, also a witness to Smith’s execution, described observing the exact same “observational evidence” as Faulk. Indeed, Chandler’s description of Smith’s execution only amplifies the constitutional concern it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment; Chandler observed that while Smith’s chest was heaving, “he had regular loud coughing,” strong evidence he was not unconscious (and not insensate) when the excruciatingly painful lethal injection drugs were administered.

In a sharply worded oped for the Washington Post on May 11, David Waisel, an associate professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School wrote, “[t]he drugs we use for executions can cause immense pain and suffering.” Specifically, Waisel opined that “[m]ounting evidence suggests that midazolam does not anesthetize inmates during executions, as shown by movement and difficulty breathing (each a sign that someone isn’t anesthetized) long after injection[.]”

While Waisel’s column focused on Arkansas’ assembly line executions in April – in particular, the problematic execution of Kenneth Williams – his opinion is just as trenchant and ultimately damning for the future of constitutionally kosher executions in Alabama.

Waisel concluded: (1) “When midazolam is used, executions predictably go awry;” (2) “[V]iolent and painful executions will continue as long as we attempt to use midazolam as an aesthetic; and (3) perhaps of greatest salience as Alabama charts its next course on capital punishment: “The state’s self-serving statements that [an] execution was flawless and proceeded according to plan do not make it so, especially when numerous eyewitnesses contradict the version of events the state is promoting.”

At the end of October of last year, I wrote that Alabama’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) and Commissioner Dunn had duped me into believing that Alabama’s second-to-last execution – the lethal injection of Christopher Brooks on January 21, 2016 – had also gone “smoothly” and according to plan. (See “Alabama’s last execution may have burned a man alive”). Using court filings by Brooks’ federal defenders that were buttressed by affidavits from expert medical witnesses, I accused Alabama, through the false representations of Commissioner Dunn, of “painting Mr. Brooks’ execution as a peaceful passing – like he just curled up in a comfy hammock and dozed off – never to wake again.”

Outrageously, despite mountainous waves of “observational evidence” indicating Ronald Bert Smith’s execution was botched just as Brooks’ may have been, ADOC and Commissioner Dunn are in denial-and-hide-the-ball-mode again.

As we careen closer to the nation’s and Alabama’s next execution – that of Tommy Arthur scheduled on May 25 – Dunn and ADOC are still pigheadedly denying the objective evidence observed by the seasoned, unbiased reporters that saw Smith die; “observational evidence” Professor Waisel has since given undeniable and absolutely odious meaning to.

Alabama courts are complicit in the cover-up. As reported by the Associated Press on May 16, Montgomery, Alabama Circuit Judge J.R. Gaines has ruled: “Alabama can keep secret its records from recent lethal injections, including documents about [the executions of Ronald Bert Smith and Christopher Brooks].” Arthur’s lawyers had argued for the release of ADOC logs and other records indicating Smith and Brooks may have been tortured noting, “[t]he people of Alabama have a right to know what their government is doing in their name, especially when it involves taking a life.”

Rejecting this commonsense plea for knowledge and for decency, Judge Gaines wrote: “Any release of the execution logs would be detrimental to the best interests of the public.”

Recently I urged “conscientious, justice-loving Alabamians” to demand that Alabama’s newly appointed Attorney General Steven Marshall “investigate and publicly address the circumstances of both [Ronald Bert] Smith and [Christopher] Brooks’ deaths.” I’m making that same plea again. But this time, instead of only Alabamians, I’m inviting all conscientious, justice-loving Americans and citizens of the world to join too.

Demand that authorities in Alabama be honest and transparent about executions. Demand that death row inmates receive effective counsel and that they be treated fairly and humanely. Demand that torture be prohibited. And, until that can be assured, if it can ever be assured, demand that Governor Kay Ivey issue a moratorium on all executions going forward. Demand that Alabama comply with the state and federal constitutions.

Don’t ask for these things. Demand them.

More articles by:

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
December 09, 2019
Jefferson Morley
Trump’s Hand-Picked Prosecutor John Durham Cleared the CIA Once, Will He Again?
Kirkpatrick Sale
Political Collapse: The Center Cannot Hold
Ishmael Reed
Bloomberg Condoned Sexual Assault by NYPD 
W. T. Whitney
Hitting at Cuban Doctors and at Human Solidarity
Louisa Willcox
The Grizzly Cost of Coexistence
Thomas Knapp
Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner
John Feffer
How the New Right Went Global — and How to Stop It
Ralph Nader
Why Not Also Go With “The Kitchen Table” Impeachable Offenses for Removal?
M. K. Bhadrakumar
Sri Lanka Continues Its Delicate Dance With India
Robert Fisk
Meet the Controversial Actor and Businessman Standing Up Against Egypt’s el-Sisi
Dahr Jamail
Savoring What Remains: Dealing With Climate PTSD
George Wuerthner
Bison Slaughter in Yellowstone…Again
Scott Tucker
Premature Democratic Socialists: Reasons for Hope and Change
Julian Rose
Polish Minister of Health Proposes Carcinogenic 5G Emission Levels as National Norm
Dean Baker
Coal and the Regions Left Behind
Robert Koehler
Envisioning a United World
Weekend Edition
December 06, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Eat an Impeachment
Matthew Hoh
Authorizations for Madness; The Effects and Consequences of Congress’ Endless Permissions for War
Jefferson Morley
Why the Douma Chemical Attack Wasn’t a ‘Managed Massacre’
Andrew Levine
Whatever Happened to the Obama Coalition?
Paul Street
The Dismal Dollar Dems and the Subversion of Democracy
Dave Lindorff
Conviction and Removal Aren’t the Issue; It’s Impeachment of Trump That is Essential
Ron Jacobs
Law Seminar in the Hearing Room: Impeachment Day Six
Linda Pentz Gunter
Why Do We Punish the Peacemakers?
Louis Proyect
Michael Bloomberg and Me
Robert Hunziker
Permafrost Hits a Grim Threshold
Joseph Natoli
What We Must Do
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Global Poison Spring
Robert Fantina
Is Kashmir India’s Palestine?
Charles McKelvey
A Theory of Truth From the South
Walden Bello
How the Battle of Seattle Made the Truth About Globalization True
Evan Jones
BNP Before a French Court
Norman Solomon
Kerry’s Endorsement of Biden Fits: Two Deceptive Supporters of the Iraq War
Torsten Bewernitz – Gabriel Kuhn
Syndicalism for the Twenty-First Century: From Unionism to Class-Struggle Militancy
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Balkans: From Banja Luka to Sarajevo
Thomas Knapp
NATO is a Brain Dead, Obsolete, Rabid Dog. Euthanize It.
Forrest Hylton
Bolivia’s Coup Government: a Far-Right Horror Show
M. G. Piety
A Lesson From the Danes on Immigration
Ellen Isaacs
The Audacity of Hypocrisy
Monika Zgustova
Chernobyl, Lies and Messianism in Russia
Manuel García, Jr.
From Caesar’s Last Breath to Ours
Binoy Kampmark
Going to the ICJ: Myanmar, Genocide and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Gamble
Jill Richardson
Marijuana and the Myth of the “Gateway Drug”
Muzamil Bhat
Srinagar’s Shikaras: Still Waters Run Deep Losses
Gaither Stewart
War and Betrayal: Change and Transformation
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail