Alabama execution using nitrogen gas, the first ever, again puts US at front of death penalty debate

A man who was paid $1,000 to kill an Alabama woman more than 30 years ago has been put to death with pure nitrogen gas, a first-of-its-kind execution that again placed the U.S. at the forefront of the debate over capital punishment

Kim Chandler
Friday 26 January 2024 14:10 GMT

A man who was paid $1,000 to kill an Alabama woman more than 30 years ago was put to death with pure nitrogen gas, a first-of-its-kind execution that again placed the U.S. at the forefront of the debate over capital punishment.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, appeared to shake and convulse at the start before being pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. Thursday at an Alabama prison after breathing the gas through a face mask to cause oxygen deprivation. It marked the first time a new execution method was used in the United States since 1982, when lethal injection was introduced and later became the most common method.

Smith appeared conscious for several minutes into the procedure. For at least two minutes, Smith made seizure-like movements on the gurney that sometimes had him pulling against the restraints. That was followed by several minutes of labored breathing. He was pronounced dead after 22 minutes.

In a final statement, Smith said: “Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards. ... I’m leaving with love, peace and light.” He made the “I love you sign” with his hands toward family members who were witnesses. “Thank you for supporting me. Love, all of you,” Smith said.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the execution was justice for the murder-for-hire killing of 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett in 1988.

“After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes. ... I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss,” Ivey said in a statement.

The state had previously attempted to execute Smith in 2022, but the lethal injection was called off at the last minute because authorities couldn’t connect an IV line.

The state had maintained the new execution method would be humane, but critics called it cruel and experimental. Those disagreements continued after Smith was put to death.

Mike Sennett, the victim’s son, noted Thursday night that Smith “had been incarcerated almost twice as long as I knew my mom.”

“Nothing happened here today is going to bring Mom back. It’s kind of a bittersweet day. We are not going to be jumping around, whooping and holler ‘Hooray’ and all that. ... I’ll end by saying Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett got her justice tonight,” he said.

Asked about Smith’s shaking and convulsing on the gurney, Alabama corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm, who watched the execution, said they appeared to be involuntary movements and the type of breathing that comes with not getting enough oxygen.

“That was all expected and was in the side effects that we’ve seen or researched on nitrogen hypoxia,” Hamm said. “Nothing was out of the ordinary from what we were expecting.” He said he thought Smith night have been holding his breath at the start of the execution.

However, Smith’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeff Hood, said the execution did not match the state attorney general’s prediction in court filings that Smith would lose consciousness in seconds followed by death within minutes.

“We didn’t see somebody go unconscious in 30 seconds. What we saw was minutes of someone struggling for their life,” said Hood, who attended the execution. “I stood there and cried as I saw someone get suffocated to death,” he added.

The execution came after a last-minute legal battle in which Smith's attorneys contended the state was making him the test subject for an experimental execution method that could violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Federal courts rejected Smith’s bid to block it, with the latest ruling coming Thursday night from the U.S. 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.

State Attorney General Steve Marshall said late Thursday that nitrogen gas “was intended to be — and has now proved to be — an effective and humane method of execution.”

Some doctors and organizations had expressed alarm about the method, and Smith’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to halt the execution to review claims that it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and deserved more legal scrutiny before it was used on a person.

“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 minimize the pain and suffering of the condemned person,” Smith’s attorneys wrote.

In her dissent, Sotomayor said Alabama has shrouded its execution protocol in secrecy, releasing only a heavily redacted version. She also said Smith should have been allowed to obtain evidence about the protocol and to proceed with his legal challenge.

In his final hours, Smith met with family members and his spiritual adviser, according to a prison spokesperson. He ate a last meal of T-bone steak, hash browns, toast and eggs slathered in A1 steak sauce, Hood said by telephone before the execution was carried out.

Smith was strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber — the same one where he was strapped down for several hours during the 2022 lethal injection attempt. He had a blue-rimmed respirator facemask covering his entire face. Hamm, the corrections commissioner, confirmed afterward that the nitrogen gas flowed for about 15 minutes. The state protocol called for the nitrogen gas to flow for at least 15 minutes or “five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer,"

Some states are looking for new ways to execute people because the drugs used in lethal injections have become difficult to find. Three states — Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but no state had attempted to use the method until now.

Smith’s attorneys had raised concerns that he could choke to death on his own vomit as the nitrogen gas flowed. The state made a last-minute procedural change so he would not be allowed food in the eight hours beforehand.

Sennett was found dead in her home March 18, 1988, with eight stab wounds in the chest and one on each side of her neck. Smith was one of two men convicted in the killing. The other, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010.

Prosecutors said they were each paid $1,000 to kill Sennett on behalf of her pastor husband, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance. The husband, Charles Sennett Sr., killed himself when the investigation focused on him as a suspect, according to court documents.

Smith’s 1989 conviction was overturned, but he was convicted again in 1996. The jury recommended a life sentence by 11-1, but a judge overrode that and sentenced him to death. Alabama no longer allows a judge to override a jury’s death penalty decision.

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