Convicted murderer Ronald B. Smith reportedly coughed and heaved for 13 minutes Thursday night as the state of Alabama carried out its execution of the condemned murderer.
What does this have to do with Florida?
Florida has applied the death penalty with enthusiasm since it was reinstated here in 1976. The state has executed 92 individuals, trailing only Texas, Oklahoma and Virginia. There are 384 people currently are on death row and awaiting their turn on the lethal injection gurney.
However, thanks to various legal challenges for how the state imposes the death penalty and its method of completing the task, the pace of executions has stalled here. The state has executed only three people in the last two years, its slowest pace since 1996-97 and far below the 15 men Florida sent to the great beyond in 2014-15.
No one can say with any reasonable certainty who will be next. The case in Alabama almost certainly will have an impact here, though, as opponents will use it as an example of what can go wrong.
Ken Faulk, who witnessed the procedure for Al.com, reported that Smith’s execution took 34 minutes to complete. Faulk wrote:
“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.”
Smith’s attorneys had challenged the Alabama execution law, claiming the drugs used might not fully sedate a condemned inmate. The drugs used in Florida executions also have been challenged in court.
The News Service of Florida reported this week that the state has been stockpiling the drug etomidate, a sedative that has never has been used in executions. Attorney General Pam Bondi also is challenging a state Supreme Court decision that a portion of the reworked sentencing law is unconstitutional.
Alabama plans to perform an autopsy on Smith’s body to determine what happened during his execution. Its findings could spur more legal challenges that would keep Florida’s death row population stable for the foreseeable future.
All of this comes at a time when public support for the death penalty is declining. Pew Research reported in September that 49 percent of Americans favor capital punishment, its lowest level in about four decades and far below the high-water mark of 80 percent in 1994.
Lethal injection, once seen as a humane way to kill inmates compared to the electric chair and other forms of execution, now is under siege. In his book “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty,” Amherst College professor Austin Sarat identified 75 flawed executions by lethal injection – 7.12 percent of all those carried out.
He specified the 2006 Florida execution of Angel Diaz, which took 34 minutes to complete after the needle inserted into his vein came out the other side. That prompted then-Gov. Jeb Bush to suspend executions.
Whatever the outcome of this latest misadventure with the death penalty, don’t expect things to change in Florida. The state will keep fighting to execute people, and opponents will keep fighting to stop it. That’s the only certainty here for capital punishment.