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Alabama executes man by nitrogen gas for the first time in the U.S.

<strong>Left:</strong> A photo provided by Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher's wife. <strong>Right: </strong>Alabama's lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., seen in 2002.
Alabama Department of Corrections via AP and AP
Left: A photo provided by Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher's wife. Right: Alabama's lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., seen in 2002.

Alabama executed a death row prisoner Thursday using nitrogen gas, becoming the first state in the U.S. to use the gas in an execution, despite concerns about the untested method.

Kenneth Smith, 58, died at 8:25 p.m. Central Time, after a slew of last-minute appeals to several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, failed.

The execution started at 7:53 p.m., according to John Hamm, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections. At approximately 7:55 p.m., Kenneth Smith gave his last words.

"Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step backwards," Smith said. "I'm leaving with love, peace and light. Thank you for supporting me, love all of you."

Hamm said nitrogen flowed for around 15 minutes. The gas was administered through a mask, while two execution workers, in addition to Smith's spiritual adviser, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, looked on. Media witnesses said Smith appeared conscious for about ten minutes. He shook and writhed for about two minutes on the gurney, followed by about five minutes of heavy breathing.

This is the second time Alabama has attempted to put Smith to death. In 2022, workers tried and failed to place the intravenous line necessary to kill him with lethal injection drugs. After he was strapped to the gurney for four hours, the execution was called off.

A sign for the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., where Smith was incarcerated and executed.
/ Gabrielle Caplan for NPR
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Gabrielle Caplan for NPR
A sign for the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., where Smith was incarcerated and executed.

Concerns about nitrogen gas as a method of execution have swirled around this case for several months. The Alabama attorney general's office has said that nitrogen hypoxia is "the most painless and humane method of execution known to man." Still, although researchers have used the gas to kill animals, in 2020 the American Veterinary Medical Association deemed it "unacceptable" as a euthanization method for all mammals except pigs, since it could be "distressing."

"Everybody is telling me I'm going to suffer," Smith told NPR in December. "I'm absolutely terrified."

After the first execution failed, Smith's lawyers requested Alabama not attempt another by lethal injection, and requested nitrogen gas, the secondary method approved in the state. But before Smith's second execution date was scheduled, his lawyers argued against the gas, alleging that using an untested method in a second attempt to execute him would violate his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Both state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, denied the appeals.

Kenneth Smith (left) stands with his spiritual adviser Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood.
/ Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood
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Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood
Kenneth Smith (left) stands with his spiritual adviser Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood.

Nitrogen gas is so novel an execution method that the risk to workers in the death chamber is unclear. In November, the Alabama Department of Corrections asked Smith's spiritual adviser, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, to sign a form acknowledging that although there would be oxygen gas monitors in the room, he would be at risk of harm by exposure to the gas. Hood was required to stay three feet away from Smith, the form explained, since nitrogen could leak out of Smith's mask or pool above his head.

After Hood sued the Department of Corrections for violating his religious liberties by preventing him from ministering to Smith, he said the department agreed to allow him to interact with Smith before workers started administering the nitrogen gas. Officials also promised to develop an emergency plan to protect him and the other workers in the chamber, he said. NPR asked if the agency had completed the backup plan, but Corrections did not respond.

While on a tour of the room the day before, Hood noticed two unplugged oxygen monitors and said the warden dodged questions about the safety protocol.

"What I saw did nothing to minimize my fears," Hood told NPR. "It only increased my fears of the incompetence."

Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood said the Department of Corrections agreed to allow him to interact with Smith before workers started administering the nitrogen gas.
/ Gabrielle Caplan for NPR
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Gabrielle Caplan for NPR
Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood said the Department of Corrections agreed to allow him to interact with Smith before workers started administering the nitrogen gas.

Alabama has repeatedly struggled to carry out executions without mistakes. In July 2022, the execution team took hours to set the intravenous lines for prisoner Joe Nathan James. James was ultimately executed, but his family has sued the state for what is believed to be one of the longest executions in U.S. history. Just two months after that, the state was forced to halt the execution of prisoner Alan Miller for the same reason. In November, workers struggled again to find a vein to inject Smith.

"So I'm wired up on my left arm and then they start working on my right arm, and they were just sticking me over and over, going in the same hole like a freaking sewing machine," Smith told NPR. "I was absolutely alone in a room full of people, and not one of them tried to help me at all – and I was crying out for help."

The Alabama Department of Corrections has been secretive about that execution and the one carried out in 2024. NPR requested information regarding purchases the state made in preparation for the nitrogen gas execution. The request was denied. The information would be "detrimental to public interest," the agency said. NPR also asked if a doctor would be present in the death chamber, whether the execution workers administering the nitrogen gas had medical training, if any of those workers would be the same as the ones who were involved with Smith's first execution, and how many witnesses would be present at the execution.

The Department of Corrections did not respond to any of the inquiries. Officials published a basic protocolexplaining how the state planned to carry out the execution by nitrogen gas. Much of the information was redacted.

Alli Sullivan holds a sign protesting the use of nitrogen gas in executions on the road leading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. She is on the communications team at Death Penalty Action, an organization that seeks to stop executions and end the death penalty.
/ Gabrielle Caplan for NPR
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Gabrielle Caplan for NPR
Alli Sullivan holds a sign protesting the use of nitrogen gas in executions on the road leading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. She is on the communications team at Death Penalty Action, an organization that seeks to stop executions and end the death penalty.

Smith said he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after the first failed execution attempt.

"Nothing prepares you for it," he said. "There is a mental trauma there that I never realized until I went through that."

After the repeated failures, in December of 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey paused executions in the state and ordered a "top to bottom review" of the state's execution protocol. Following that internal review, and a rule change allowing the state to set its own time frame for executions, they resumed three months later with the death of James Barber.

From murder to execution: 35 years of waiting

Smith was one of three men convicted for his role in the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of Elizabeth Sennett, who was found with multiple stab wounds at her home in Colbert County, Ala.

"She was a likable person, a loving person," said her son, Chuck Sennett. "Confidante, easy to talk to. Had a lot of friends. Never met a stranger. Just run of the mill, Southern wife and mom."

Chuck (left) and Mike Sennett are sons of Elizabeth Sennett, who was killed by Kenneth Smith in 1988.
Chiara Eisner / NPR
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NPR
Chuck (left) and Mike Sennett are sons of Elizabeth Sennett, who was killed by Kenneth Smith in 1988.

His father, Rev. Charles Sennett, was a Christian pastor who was involved in hiring the men who killed their mother. When authorities started to investigate their father's link to the hitmen who carried out his wife's murder, each of whom was paid $1,000 in compensation, Sennett killed himself.

"He took the easy road, committed suicide," said Chuck Sennett. "So it's like a slap in the face."

Chuck and his brother, Mike, said they would have wanted a quick death penalty for their father, too. They believe the decades they've had to wait for Smith to be executed is too long.

"Alabama is the worst judicial system in the union," said Chuck Sennett. "35 years later, we're still dealing with it. Why?"

Mike Sennett holds a photo of his mother, Elizabeth. Kenneth Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 for his role in the murder-for-hire killing.
Chiara Eisner / NPR
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NPR
Mike Sennett holds a photo of his mother, Elizabeth. Kenneth Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 for his role in the murder-for-hire killing.

Following Smith's execution, Mike Sennett told reporters, "Nothing that happened here today is going to bring Mom back... We're glad this day is over."

Smith's path to the death chamber has not been straightforward. After he was brought to trial in 1989, 10 of 12 jury members voted that he should receive the death penalty. But that conviction was later reversed when it was revealed that prosecutors had unconstitutionally struck Black jurors from the pool. Black people have historically been less supportive of capital punishment than white Americans.

When Smith was retried in 1996, all but one juror voted against the death penalty and recommended he spend life in prison instead. But the trial judge, Pride Tompkins, overruled the jury and imposed a death sentence. The Alabama statute that allowed judges to override jury recommendations has since been replaced; Smith would have been sentenced to life in prison had 11 of 12 jurors voted as they did during his second trial.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner is a reporter for NPR's investigations team. Eisner came to NPR from The State in South Carolina, where her investigative reporting on the experiences of former execution workers received McClatchy's President's Award and her coverage of the biomedical horseshoe crab industry led to significant restrictions of the harvest.
Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.
Noah Caldwell