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Alabama inmate Kenneth Smith killed by nitrogen in first execution of its kind

Kenneth Smith has become the first person in the world to be put to death by nitrogen gas after officials at the Alabama Department of Corrections executed him.

Smith, 58, was executed on Thursday and died from nitrogen hypoxia at 8.25pm CT, the state’s Republican Governor Kay Ivey confirmed.

“On March 18, 1988, 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett’s life was brutally taken from her by Kenneth Eugene Smith. After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes,” Ms Ivey said in a written statement.

“The execution was lawfully carried out by nitrogen hypoxia, the method previously requested by Mr Smith as an alternative to lethal injection. At long last, Mr. Smith got what he asked for, and this case can finally be put to rest.

“I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss.”

Before his execution, Smith was visited in prison by his wife and sons, who also witnessed his execution. His last meal was steak, eggs and hash browns.

Media witnesses who saw correctional authorities administer the death penalty said the prisoner’s final words included, “Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards… Thank you for supporting me. Love you all.

“I’m leaving with love, peace and light.” As officials began to administer the gas, Smith turned to his family and signed “I love you.” The witnesses reported seeing Smith shaking and writhing. The curtains to the execution closed at 8.15pm.

It was the second attempt to execute Smith. In November 2022, officials attempted to kill him with lethal injection but were unable to place two intravenous lines into his system for four hours. Authorities eventually gave up because Smith’s death warrant was expiring.

At the time, it was the third consecutive botched execution attempt by the state using lethal injection. Smith said the experience left him with physical and psychological pain, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

When thinking about his second execution attempt, Smith voiced his preference for nitrogen hypoxia but expressed concern about the state’s untested method, including the likelihood that he could vomit, be left in a vegetative state or experience the painful sensation of suffocation.

According to Alabama’s death penalty protocol for nitrogen hypoxia, prisoners are to be put to death with a fitted mask and breathing tube to control gas, slowly depriving them of oxygen.

Retching is a known symptom of oxygen deprivation. If a prisoner were to vomit, officials told a federal court that they would not step in, meaning that Smith risked potentially choking to death.

In the weeks leading up to his execution, his attorneys tried several last-ditch attempts to spare his life, including filing petitions with the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court.

Nearly an hour after Smith’s scheduled execution time of 6pm, the Supreme Court issued its final decision in the case, allowing Alabama to proceed with the execution. Liberal Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson dissented.

Earlier in the day, Smith’s attorneys appealed a Wednesday federal court ruling.

The attorneys had asked the court to block the execution due to the risks associated with the method. In a separate appeal that also made its way to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, justices were asked whether attempting a second execution on Smith would constitute “cruel and unusual punishments” under the Eighth and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution.

Both courts decided against intervening the day before Smith was put to death. An order issued by the Supreme Court on Wednesday did not include additional comments or dissenting opinions.

But in Thursday’s order, Justice Sotomayor, who wrote a dissenting opinion, said she viewed the case similarly to Judge Jill Pryor, who dissented in the federal court ruling on Wednesday. In that decision, Judge Pryor wrote the execution could cost “Mr Smith’s human dignity, and ours.”

Justice Sotomayor went further to say she would stop Smith from being put to death using the experimental method.

“While I would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari and summarily reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s order affirming the denial of Smith’s preliminary-injunction motion, at a minimum, I would grant Smith’s request for a stay of execution,” she wrote.

Justice Sotomayor’s opinion stemmed from a federal court ruling issued by US District Judge Austin Huffaker weeks before Smith was put to death. He previously ruled that Smith’s concerns did not merit a stay of execution.

“Smith is not guaranteed a painless death,” Judge Huffaker wrote. “On this record, Smith has not shown and the court cannot conclude, the Protocol inflicts both cruel and unusual punishment rendering it constitutionally infirm under the prevailing legal framework.”

Earlier this month, a group of United Nations experts publicly stated they were alarmed at the thought of the state using the new method, which was the first time someone was put to death with gas in the US since 1999.

“We are concerned that nitrogen hypoxia would result in a painful and humiliating death,” the organisation said, citing how Alabama’s heavily redacted protocol does not call for prisoners to be sedated beforehand.

Another group of experts, the American Veterinary Medical Association, does not condone the use of certain gases to euthanise specific mammals because they create an “anoxic environment that is distressing for some species.”

Oklahoma first pioneered the idea of nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method after drugs for lethal injections became increasingly difficult to find. Alabama and Mississippi then followed suit and passed legislation allowing for the method’s use. However, Alabama became the first state to put nitrogen hypoxia into practice.

Elizabeth Sennett was the victim of a for-hire killing in 1988

(Supplied)

In 1988 Smith was convicted of murdering Ms Sennett, a 45-year-old pastor’s wife. He was part of a three-person murder-for-hire team that orchestrated the crime, believed to be at the direction of her husband, Charles Sennett, who’d sunk deep into debt, wanted to collect on her life insurance policy and was having an extramarital affair.

Mr Sennett died by suicide days after the murder once officials zeroed in on him as the main suspect.

Based on court documents, the husband recruited Billy Gray Williams to see the murder through. Williams then recruited John Forest Parker and Smith, who were each paid $1,000 to commit the crime on 18 March 1988.

Forest Parker and Smith encountered Sennett alone at home and said that her husband permitted them to inspect her land for hunting purposes. She called her husband to confirm and then let the men into her residence.

According to a coroner’s report, Ms Sennett was stabbed “eight times in the chest and once on each side of the neck, and had suffered numerous abrasions and cuts. It’s believed that Forest Parker was the one to fatally stab the woman. He was executed via lethal injection in 2010, while Williams was sentenced to life in prison without parole and died in 2020.

At Smith’s first trial in 1989, the jury recommended a death sentence by a vote of 10 to 2. However, the conviction was overturned in 1992 on grounds that the state purposely kept jurors from serving on the trial based on their race.

During the second trial, which took place in 1996 in Jefferson County, the jury voted 11 to 1 for life in prison without parole. That decision was overridden by Colbert County Circuit Judge Pride Tompkins, who subsequently condemned him to death by electrocution.

Up until 2017 Alabama judges could override a jury’s recommendation in favour of the death penalty.

Speaking to a reporter years later, Judge Tompkins said he believed Smith deserved the death penalty due to the nature of the crime. “Some people serving on juries, especially on these cases, have never been in court before and they don’t want the responsibility to sentence someone to death,” he told The Gadsden Times.

Charles Sennett Jr, the son of Ms Sennett, told WAAY-TV days before Smith was put to death that he’d been waiting over 35 years to see his mother’s killer executed.

“Why should we have to suffer,” he said.  “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. They just did it.

“They stabbed her multiple times.”


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