US murderer’s prolonged nitrogen gas execution condemned as torture

A death row prisoner used his final words to say “humanity had taken a step backwards” before he was killed in a prolonged suffocation condemned as torture.

Kenneth Smith shook and writhed for two minutes on Thursday night as his mask filled up with the nitrogen gas, witnesses said, despite Alabama saying his death would be quick and painless.

The convicted killer is said to have remained conscious, breathing heavily and gasping for a further eight minutes as his sons and crying wife watched on.

“Tonight, Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards,” Smith said in his final words. “I’m leaving with love, peace, and light. Thank you for supporting me. Love all of you.”

During a press conference Reverend Dr. Jeff Hood (L), the spiritual advisor for convicted killer Kenneth Eugene Smith, comforts Smith's wife Deanna Smith as she describes the execution of her husband by nitrogen gas by the State of Alabama in Atmore, Alabama, USA, 25 January 2024
Reverend Dr. Jeff Hood comforts Smith's wife Deanna - Dan Anderson/EPA-EFE

Smith, 58, was the first person to be killed with nitrogen in a US execution as prisons run out of lethal injection drugs. He was not pronounced dead until 8.25pm, 22 minutes after the gas was first administered.

Steve Marshall, Alabama’s attorney general, insisted that the execution had “proved” nitrogen gas was “an effective and humane method of execution”.

The US Supreme Court denied Smith a last-minute reprieve on Thursday evening after state lawyers insisted he would lose consciousness in seconds and die in minutes.

Sonia Sotomayor, one of three liberal justices who disagreed with the six conservatives who backed the execution said: “Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its ‘guinea pig’ to test a method of execution never attempted before.”

The United Nations’ human rights commissioner last week branded the method, officially termed nitrogen hypoxia, as “torture” and urged the state not to use it.

Smith was strapped to a gurney at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, as the nitrogen gas was pumped into a mask he was wearing.

The state had promised that the mask would be airtight but witnesses said they could hear gas coming out of it, likely prolonging the suffocation.

Smith was one of two men convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett
Smith was one of two men convicted over the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett

The Rev Jeff Hood, a Catholic chaplain who ministered to Smith, said the execution was the “worst thing” he had ever witnessed.

“Unbelievable evil was unleashed tonight in Alabama,” he said through tears.

He said Smith had eaten a final meal of T-bone steak, hash browns, toast and eggs from the Waffle House chain.

His last meal ahead of the lethal injection attempt in 2022 was fried catfish and shrimp.

Lee Hedgepeth, a reporter who witnessed the death, said: “I’ve been to four previous executions and I’ve never seen a condemned inmate thrash in the way that Kenneth Smith reacted to the nitrogen gas.

“Kenny just began to gasp for air repeatedly and the execution took about 25 minutes total.”

John Hamm, the commissioner of the Alabama department of corrections, said Smith’s prolonged suffering was his own fault.

“It appeared Smith was holding his breath as long as he could,” he said. “So nothing was out of the ordinary for what we were expecting.”

Asked about Smith’s writhing, he added: “That was all expected and was in the side effects that we’ve seen or researched on nitrogen hypoxia.”

Mike Sennett, son of Elizabeth Sennett, and other family members speak after Kenneth Smith's execution
Mike Sennett, son of Elizabeth Sennett, and other family members speak after Kenneth Smith's execution - AP

Smith had previously gone through a botched execution attempt in 2022 when a vein could not be found for a lethal injection.

He was sentenced to death in 1996 after being found guilty along with two others of murdering Elizabeth Sennett, a preacher’s wife, in her own home in 1988.

Sennett was found dead in her home March 18 1988, with eight stab wounds in the chest and one on each side of her neck.

Prosecutors said her killers were each paid $1,000 (£787) on behalf of her pastor husband, Charles Sennett Sr, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance. Sennett Sr, killed himself when the investigation focused on him as a suspect, according to court documents.

Speaking after Smith’s execution, Ms Sennett’s son, Charles Sennett Jr, said he had little sympathy for her killer.

“And some of these people out there say, ‘Well, he doesn’t need to suffer like that’,” he told Waay-TV.

“Well, he didn’t ask Mama how to suffer? They just did it. They stabbed her – multiple times.”

The White House said on Friday it was “deeply troubled” by the first-ever execution using nitrogen gas.

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House spokeswoman, said. “The use of nitrogen gas – it is troubling to us.” She added Joe Biden had “broad concern about the death penalty”.