Alabama made history by executing convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith using nitrogen gas, marking the first time this method of capital punishment has been employed globally. The 58-year-old lost two final appeals to the Supreme Court and one to a federal appeals court, arguing that the execution was a cruel and unusual punishment. Smith was convicted in 1989 of the murder of Elizabeth Sennett, the wife of a preacher, in a killing-for-hire scheme.
In 2022, Alabama attempted and failed to execute Smith by lethal injection, prompting the state to explore alternative methods due to difficulties in sourcing the drugs required for lethal injections. Nitrogen gas was chosen as an alternative, and Smith’s execution became the inaugural use of this method worldwide.
The execution took place at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. Smith lost consciousness within seconds of the nitrogen gas flowing into his mask, and the process continued for around 25 minutes. Witnesses, including a journalist, described the condemned inmate thrashing violently on the gurney during the execution.
The use of nitrogen gas as a means of execution has been controversial, and medical professionals have expressed concerns about potential complications, ranging from violent convulsions to survival in a vegetative state. Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged a halt to the execution, stating that gassing Smith could be considered torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under international human rights law.
Alabama’s Attorney General Steve Marshall defended the use of nitrogen gas, stating that it proved to be “an effective and humane method of execution,” refuting earlier predictions of dire consequences made by activists and the media. The state’s Corrections Commissioner, John Hamm, noted that Smith’s involuntary movements during the execution were expected side effects of nitrogen hypoxia.
Smith’s execution was not without its share of controversy and legal battles. The condemned inmate had lost consciousness within seconds, and the process took around 25 minutes, prompting dissent from three liberal justices on the Supreme Court who questioned the selection of Smith as a “guinea pig” to test a previously untried method of execution.
The journey to Smith’s execution involved numerous legal challenges. Two years ago, Alabama attempted to execute him by lethal injection, but the state was unable to raise a vein before the death warrant expired. On Thursday night, the Supreme Court denied Smith a last-minute reprieve, marking the end of a legal battle that spanned several decades.
Smith’s crime dates back to 1988 when he was convicted of being one of two men involved in a killing-for-hire plot. The victim, Elizabeth Sennett, was the wife of a debt-ridden preacher, Charles Sennett, who orchestrated the scheme to collect insurance money. Smith’s fellow hitman, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010.
During the trial, Smith admitted to being present when the victim was killed but claimed he did not actively participate in the attack. The jury voted to spare his life, but a judge overrode that decision, leading to Smith’s decades-long tenure on death row.
The controversy surrounding Smith’s execution has reignited discussions about the methods and ethics of capital punishment. Nitrogen gas execution has now become part of this debate, with concerns about potential complications and the broader implications for the use of this method in future executions.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey confirmed Smith’s death in a statement, expressing hope that Elizabeth Sennett’s family could find closure after dealing with the loss for more than 30 years. The victim’s son, Charles Sennett Jr., expressed little sympathy for Smith, emphasizing the brutal nature of the crime.
Smith’s legal team, in a post-execution statement, expressed deep sadness over the outcome and noted that the jury had initially voted to spare his life. They emphasized that nothing could undo the tragic consequences of the actions for which he was convicted, acknowledging the pain endured by the Sennett family and friends.
As the international community watches, Alabama’s use of nitrogen gas for Smith’s execution has highlighted the ongoing debate surrounding capital punishment, raising questions about the humanity and ethics of alternative methods. The nitrogen gas execution has added a new chapter to the complex narrative of the death penalty in the United States, sparking conversations about the role of the state in administering justice and the potential impact on future executions.