Troubling Witness Accounts Follow Unexplained Delay in Alabama Execution


The State of Alabama delayed Michael Brandon Samra’s execution last night for over an hour without explanation, and witnesses observed disturbing evidence that Mr. Samra struggled on the gurney before he died.

Supreme Court justices recently have complained about delays caused by last minute challenges to lethal injection protocols and have questioned the motives of lawyers who attempt to ensure that inmates are executed humanely, but Mr. Samra’s case did not involve any such litigation.

Even though all litigation was completed more than two days before the scheduled execution and Governor Kay Ivey denied clemency eight hours earlier, state officials nevertheless delayed Mr. Samra’s execution from the scheduled time of 6 p.m. until 7:09 p.m. The State did not offer an explanation for this significant delay.

Mr. Samra was pronounced dead at 7:33 p.m. Witnesses to the execution reported very troubling evidence that Mr. Samra actually struggled during the execution in ways that raise questions about whether it was administered in a humane manner.

Samra appeared alert for several minutes before his eyes closed. At 7:15 p.m., his chest heaved three times in quick succession. 

After, his breathing appeared significantly labored, with his head slightly jerking with each breath. 

A consciousness test was conducted at 7:17. 

Two minutes later, Samra stretched and drew his fingers outward, attempted to raise his right hand against his wrist restraints before curling his fingers inward.

He then stilled.  The curtain was closed at 7:25 p.m.

Mr. Samra’s execution is the latest in a series of problematic attempts to execute people by lethal injection. In 2014 in Ohio, Dennis McGuire gasped and convulsed for 10 minutes before dying; Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma writhed, groaned, convulsed, and strained to lift his head up despite being declared unconscious (he died 43 minutes after the execution began, of a heart attack); and Joseph Wood in Arizona repeatedly gasped for nearly two hours before being pronounced dead. In 2016, Ronald Bert Smith in Alabama clenched his fists and raised his head, then heaved, gasped, and coughed while struggling to breathe for 13 minutes after the lethal drugs were administered. And in 2017, Kenneth Williams in Arkansas violently lurched forward about three minutes after drugs were injected and continued to convulse about 20 times.

While lawyers have argued for years that lethal injection is an inhumane method of execution, the Supreme Court has denied these challenges and issued rulings that allowed states to carry out executions using this method. Yet evidence persists that cruelty and inhumane suffering may accompany executions carried out by lethal injection.