A man executed with nitrogen gas appears to be shaking and trembling as authorities in Alabama use the method for the first time, once again putting the United States at the forefront of the debate about the death penalty.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. in an Alabama prison after inhaling pure nitrogen gas through a mask, which caused hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen. This is the first time that a new method of execution has been used in the United States since 1982, when lethal injection was implemented, which is the most used method today.
The execution took about 22 minutes between the opening and closing of the curtains.
Smith seemed to regain consciousness for several minutes after the gas began to escape. For at least two minutes, he appeared to be limping and writhing on the stretcher, at times losing control of the force of his movements. He then exhibited heavy breathing for several minutes, until it was no longer noticeable.
“Tonight, Alabama is causing people to leave. I leave with love, peace, and light,” Smith said in his final statement. The man was sentenced for killing a woman he had hired for more than 30 years.
He directed an “I love you” gesture with his hands to his relatives who came to witness the execution. “Thank you for giving me your support. “I love you, I love you all,” said Smith.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the execution was a form of justice for the contract killing of Elizabeth Sennett, 45, in 1988.
“After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith is held accountable for his heinous crimes. “I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can find peace after all these years of dealing with this great loss,” the governor said in a statement.
Mike Sennett, the victim’s son, said Thursday night that Smith “has been in prison almost twice as long as I’ve known my mother.”
“Nothing happened here today that will bring mom back. It was a bittersweet day. “We’re not going to jump, shout and clap… I’ll end by saying that tonight justice has been done for Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett,” he said.
The European Union and the UN Human Rights Office on Friday condemned the killing. The 27-nation EU and the Geneva-based United Nations human rights agency say the death penalty violates the right to life and does not deter crime.
Alabama had already tried to execute Smith in 2022 by lethal injection, but it was canceled at the last minute because authorities could not insert an IV.
Thursday’s execution followed a legal battle in which Smith’s lawyers argued that the state had made their client a test subject for an experimental killing technique that could violate the constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Federal courts rejected Smith’s attempts to block the death penalty. The latest decision came from the federal Supreme Court on Thursday night.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who voted to dissent along with two other liberal justices, wrote: “After failing to execute Smith on its first attempt, Alabama chose him as a ‘guinea pig’ to try a method to kill. . “The world is watching.”
The judges who voted in favor of execution did not issue a statement.
The state argued that nitrogen gas can cause unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes. State Attorney Steve Marshall said Thursday night that nitrogen gas “was intended to be, and has now been proven to be, an effective and humane method of execution.”
When asked about Smith’s convulsions and convulsions on the gurney, Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm said they appeared to be involuntary movements.
“That’s all expected and within the effects we’ve seen or investigated with nitrogen hypoxia,” Hamm said. “Nothing out of the ordinary from what we expected.”
Smith’s spiritual advisor, Rev. Jeff Hood, said the execution did not match the state attorney’s prediction in court documents that Smith would lose consciousness within seconds and die within minutes.
“We didn’t see anyone unconscious for 30 seconds. What we saw were minutes of someone fighting for their life,” said Hood, who attended the execution.
Elizabeth Sennett was found dead in her home on March 18, 1988, with eight stab wounds in the chest and one on each side of the neck. Smith was one of two people convicted of murder. Another, John Forrest Parker, was killed in 2010.
Prosecutors said they were each paid $1,000 to kill Sennett for her pastor husband, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on his life insurance. The husband, Charles Sennett Sr., killed himself when the investigation focused on him as a suspect, according to court documents.