Alabama executes Kenneth Smith with nitrogen gas

Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of a preacher's wife, was executed by asphyxiation with nitrogen gas at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore on Thursday. Photo via Alabama Department of Corrections
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of a preacher's wife, was executed by asphyxiation with nitrogen gas at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore on Thursday. Photo via Alabama Department of Corrections | License Photo

Jan. 25 (UPI) -- The State of Alabama executed Kenneth Eugene Smith with nitrogen gas Thursday night, making him not only the first U.S. inmate to be put to death this year but the first person to ever die by the untested and controversial execution method.

Smith, 58, was executed Thursday for killing 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennet in March of 1988 in a murder-for-hire scheme that earned him $1,000. The 1996 trial jury had voted 11-to-1 in recommendation that Smith be sentenced to life in prison, but the judge gave him death in a judicial move that has since been outlawed in the state.


Alabama attempted to execute Smith by lethal injection in November of 2022, but with Smith tied to the gurney and after the state failed to find a vein over 90 minutes, his execution was called off.

Smith died by hypoxia after a last-ditch judicial effort to avoid his sentence from being carried out was denied earlier Thursday by the Supreme Court.


He was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. CST, Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshal said.

"Justice has been served," Marshall said in the statement.

"Tonight, Kenneth Smith was put to death for the heinous act he committed over 35 years ago: the murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett, an innocent woman who was by all accounts a godly wife, a loving mother and grandmother and a beloved pillar of her community."

Smith is the first known inmate to die inhaling nitrogen gases, which causes what is known as hypoxia, or a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues.

Marshall remarked that it was the first time for a death row inmate in the nation but also the world to be executed by this method, which has attract criticism from human rights groups, anti-death penalty advocates and the United Nations who say it is untested and dying in this manner could amount to torture.

"This method is not based on any scientific evidence," Human Rights Watch said in a statement earlier this week. "The state has based its brand-new procedures and protocols on speculation from accidental deaths by nitrogen. Veterinary scientists have ruled out the same method for euthanizing most mammals due to ethical concerns."


The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasani similarly expressed concerns with Smith's execution, stating earlier this month that it could breach the prohibition on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

"We are alarmed by the imminent execution in the United States of American of Kenneth Eugene Smith, through the use of a novel and untested method," Shamdasani said.

Marshall rejected their arguments Thursday night, describing the new method as "humane and effective" and now offers "a blueprint for other states and a warning to those who would contemplate shedding innocent blood."

"Alabama has achieved something historic," he said.

Alabama approved the use of nitrogen in the state in 2018, and Smith had petition to die by this method, which the state agreed to.

However, after his death sentence was scheduled to be carried out between Thursday and Friday, he asked the court to enjoin the state from following through, arguing that being put to death under Alabama's nitrogen gas protocol would violate his constitution rights.

Dying in this method could cause "severe risk of a persistent vegetative state, a stroke or the painful sensation of suffocation," the court document said.

His request was denied earlier this month on the grounds that Smith has not shown that the protocol inflicts both cruel and unusual punishment and that there is not enough evidence demonstrating with certainty that it would "substantially likely" cause him pain or a prolonged death.


"Execution by nitrogen hypoxia is novel. And it will remain novel even if the defendants employ Smith's proposed amendments to the protocol," Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. ruled earlier this month.

The Supreme Court on Thursday also denied his last-minute request for a stay of execution, with Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ketanji Jackson and Elena Kagan dissenting.

"Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its 'guinea pig' to test a method of execution never attempt before," Sotomayor said in her dissent. "The world is watching."

On Thursday, Smith received visits from his spiritual advisor, his mother, brother, two nieces, his son, grandson and wife, as well as his attorney, reported, citing an Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson.

His last meal was steak, hash browns and eggs.

Alabama started to carry out Smith's sentence at 7:55 p.m. and nitrogen was administered for about 15 minutes, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm told reporters during a press conference afterward.

A joint report from five media witnesses of the execution states that Smith made a lengthy final statement.

"Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step backward," he said.


"I'm leaving with love, peace and light. Thank you for supporting me. Love, all of you," he continued.

He also signed "I love you" with one hand to his witnessing family members.

As his sentence was being executed, Smith appeared conscious for several minutes, according to the witnesses report. Then for about two minutes, he "shook and writhed" on the gurney, before he started to breathe deeply until his breathing became unnoticeable to the witnesses.

Hamm told reporters that Smith appeared to have held his breath for as long as possible, and that his struggling against his straps was "involuntary movement."

"So nothing was out of the ordinary of what we were expecting," he said.

Mike Sennett, one of Elizabeth Sennett's sons, told reporters after the execution that it was "a bittersweet day."

"We're glad this day is over," he said.

"Kenneth Smith made some bad decisions 35 years ago and his debt was paid tonight."

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