Kenneth Eugene Smith, a convicted murderer, has been executed by nitrogen gas in Alabama, marking the first use of this method of capital punishment in the United States. Smith, 58, had his final appeals to the Supreme Court and a federal appeals court rejected, despite his argument that the execution was cruel and unusual punishment. In 2022, an attempt to execute Smith by lethal injection failed. Smith was convicted in 1989 for the murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett, a preacher’s wife.
The use of pure nitrogen gas for execution is a first in the US and globally, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The gas causes cell breakdown and death when inhaled without oxygen. Despite Alabama’s claim that Smith would lose consciousness quickly and die within minutes, some medical professionals warned of potential catastrophic mishaps, including violent convulsions or survival in a vegetative state.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights had urged a halt to the execution, citing potential violations of international human rights law. Alabama, along with two other US states, has approved nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative execution method due to difficulties in sourcing lethal injection drugs.
Five media members were present at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore to witness the execution. Smith reportedly smiled and signed “I love you” to his family as the gas began to flow into his mask. Witnesses reported several minutes of writhing and heavy breathing before his death.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey confirmed Smith’s death, stating that he had “answered for his horrendous crimes” after over 30 years. Attorney General Steve Marshall described the method as “an effective and humane method of execution”, countering criticisms from activists and media.
Smith was one of two men convicted for the murder of Mrs Sennett in a $1,000 killing-for-hire scheme orchestrated by her debt-ridden husband, Charles Sennett, who later committed suicide. Smith’s co-conspirator, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010. Smith admitted to being present at the murder but denied participating in the attack.
In his final 48 hours, Smith was visited by family, friends, his spiritual adviser and attorney. His last meal consisted of steak and eggs with hash browns. A previous attempt to execute Smith by lethal injection two years prior had failed due to difficulties in finding a vein. The Supreme Court denied a last-minute reprieve on the night of his execution.