Alabama Executes Kenneth Smith Using Nitrogen Gas for First Time



Kenneth Smith became the first inmate in the United States to be executed via nitrogen gas, a new method of execution that some experts believe could cause excessive pain or even torture. Smith had previously survived an attempted execution by lethal injection in 2022 and his latest appeal to halt the execution was denied by the US Supreme Court. Despite arguments that the nitrogen execution method could be inhumane and the lack of transparency in Alabama’s execution protocol, state officials defended the method as potentially the “most humane method of execution ever devised.”

First Execution in the U.S. Using Nitrogen Gas: An In-depth Look

On Thursday evening, Alabama executed death row inmate Kenneth Smith, the first in the U.S. to die by nitrogen gas. Smith’s 1988 murder for hire sentencing had previously survived a 2022 execution attempt by lethal injection. His appeal to halt the execution was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier Thursday and Wednesday.

Details of the Controversial Execution

The execution, which marked the arrival of a new method in the U.S., took place at 8:25 p.m. local time. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm revealed that nitrogen ran for approximately 15 minutes. Witnesses reported Smith’s visible distress during the execution and his final statement: “Tonight Alabama caused humanity to take a step backward.”

Witness Accounts and Opposition to the Execution

Smith’s spiritual adviser, Rev. Jeff Hood, expressed concern that the method was inhumane. According to Hood, Smith was convulsing once the nitrogen gas started, prompting him to label it as the “most horrible thing” he’d ever seen. The victim’s son, Mike Sennett, however, felt justice had been served for his mother. Smith’s legal team, saddened by his execution, pointed out his transformation in prison, where he’d found and “sincerely practiced his faith,” became sober, and earned an associate’s degree.

Nitrogen Hypoxia Execution Method

The execution method, known as nitrogen hypoxia, remains under scrutiny due to its novelty and lack of scientific backing. Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi are the only three states that have approved the use of nitrogen for executions. However, only Alabama has a protocol, and no other state has used it.

Critics and Advocates Weigh In

Critics of the execution method, including a group of United Nations experts, voiced concerns recently about the potential for a painful and humiliating death. Smith’s advocates argued that his life should be spared based on the previous, failed attempt to execute him. Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization opposed to excessive criminal punishment that advocates on behalf of death row inmates, argued that Alabama lacks the competency to carry out these executions.

The Crime and Smith’s Sentence

Smith was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Elizabeth Sennett, whose husband, Charles, was having an affair and had taken out an insurance policy on his wife. Charles Sennett conscripted a man who then recruited two others, including Smith, to kill his wife for $1,000 each. Charles committed suicide a week after the murder as authorities began to suspect him. Smith was sentenced to death, but an appeals court overturned the initial outcome and ordered a new trial. He was again convicted in the retrial, but this time his jury voted 11-1 for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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