Alabama Implements Nitrogen Gas Execution: Thursday, Alabama put to death a murderer with nitrogen gas. It was the first time this had ever been done and it put the US back at the top of the fight over the death penalty. The government said the way would be humane, but some people thought it was cruel and an experiment. At 8:25 p.m., Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was declared dead at an Alabama prison after breathing in pure nitrogen gas through a face mask to stop getting oxygen. It was the first time a new way of putting someone to death had been used in the US since 1982, when lethal injection became the most usual way.
Smith was convicted of murder-for-hire in 1988, and the state tried to put him to death in 2022, but the fatal injection was canceled at the last minute because an IV line couldn’t be set up.
Alabama Implements Nitrogen Gas Execution
Smith was put to death after a last-minute court battle in which his lawyers said the state was using him as a test subject for an experimental way to kill people, which could be against the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Smith tried to stop it in federal courts, but they all turned it down. The most recent decision came Thursday night from the US Supreme Court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who along with two other liberal justices dissented, wrote: “Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its guinea pig’ to test a method of execution never attempted before. The world is watching.” The majority justices did not issue any statements.
In a statement issued before he was put to death, Smith and the Rev. Jeff Hood, his spiritual adviser, said, “The eyes of the world are on this impending moral apocalypse. Our prayer is that people will not turn their heads. We simply cannot normalise the suffocation of each other.” The state had predicted the nitrogen gas would cause unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes.
A lawyer for the state told the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that it would be “the most painless and humane way of execution known to man.” But some doctors and groups are worried, and Smith’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to stop the execution so that they could look into claims that the method violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and needs more formal review before it is used on someone.
“There is little research regarding death by nitrogen hypoxia. When the State is considering using a novel form of execution that has never been attempted anywhere, the public has an interest in ensuring the State has researched the method adequately and established procedures to minimise the pain and suffering of the condemned person,” Smith’s attorneys wrote.
In her dissent, Sotomayor said that Alabama has kept its execution protocol secret by only sharing a version with a lot of changes made to it. She also said Smith should be able to get proof about how the executions are done and continue with his legal fight.
“That information is important not only to Smith, who has an extra reason to fear the gurney, but to anyone the State seeks to execute after him using this novel method,” Sotomayor said.
“Twice now this Court has ignored Smith’s warning that Alabama will subject him to an unconstitutional risk of pain,” Sotomayor said. “I sincerely hope that he is not proven correct a second time.” In a different dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and Justice Elena Kagan agreed with what she said.
A jail spokesperson said that Smith met with his spiritual advisor and family members in his last hours. Hood said over the phone that he ate T-bone steak, hash browns, toast, and eggs covered in A1 steak sauce for his last meal.
“He’s terrified at the torture that could come. But he’s also at peace. One of the things he told me is he is finally getting out,” Hood said.
Smith was one of two men found guilty of killing Elizabeth Sennett for money in 1988. The prosecutors said that he and the other man were each paid $1,000 to kill Sennett for her preacher husband, who was deeply in debt and wanted to get his insurance money back.
It was the victim’s son, Charles Sennett Jr., who told WAAY-TV that Smith “has to pay for what he’s done.”
“And some of these people out there say, Well, he doesn’t need to suffer like that.’ Well, he didn’t ask Mama how to suffer?” the son said. “They just did it. They stabbed her — multiple times.” The execution protocol called for Smith to be strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber — the same one where he was strapped down for several hours during the lethal injection attempt — and a “full facepiece supplied air respirator” to be placed over his face. After he would be given a chance to make a final statement, the warden, from another room, would activate the nitrogen gas.
The state policy says that it must be given through the mask for at least 15 minutes or “five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG,” whichever is longer.
Sant’Egidio Community, a Vatican-affiliated Catholic charity based in Rome, had urged Alabama not to go through with the execution, saying the method is “barbarous” and “uncivilised” and would bring “indelible shame” to the state. And experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council cautioned they believe the execution method could violate the prohibition on torture.
Because the drugs used in lethal shots are hard to find, some states are looking for other ways to put people to death. Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma are the only states that have approved nitrogen hypoxia as a way to put someone to death. Until now, no state had tried to use the untested method.
That Smith could choke to death on his own vomit as the nitrogen gas flows was a worry of his lawyers. He would not be able to eat for eight hours before he was put to death because the state changed the rules at the last minute. Sennett, 45, was found dead in her home on March 18, 1988. The doctor said she had been stabbed eight times in the chest and once on each side of her neck.
Court records show that her husband, Charles Sennett Sr., killed himself when the probe focused on him as a suspect. The other guy found guilty in the killing, John Forrest Parker, was put to death in 2010.
Smith was found not guilty in 1989, but he was found guilty again in 1996. The jurors voted 11-1 in favor of a life sentence, but the judge didn’t agree and gave him the death penalty instead. In Alabama, a judge can no longer overturn a jury’s choice to carry out the death penalty.