Alabama made history on January 25, 2024, by executing a prisoner using nitrogen gas. This was the first time in the United States that this method was used for an execution. Kenneth Smith, who was convicted of the murder of Elizabeth Sennett in 1988, was the first person to undergo this type of execution. This method had generated mixed opinions among the few witnesses who were present during the execution.
Witnesses described variations in what they observed during the approximately 22 minutes in which they were allowed to see. Although state lawyers had argued that inhalation of nitrogen gas would cause loss of consciousness in a matter of seconds, quickly ending Smith’s life, witnesses interviewed by The New York Times stated that he remained conscious for several minutes after its onset.
The intention behind the use of nitrogen gas was to offer a more humane alternative to lethal injection, especially after the first failed attempt to carry out Smith’s death sentence. The Reverend Jeff Hood, who accompanied Smith, recounted his last moments and his attempt to console those present and family, indicating that Smith referred to the execution as his “release date.”
The United States Supreme Court authorized the execution of Kenneth Smith shortly before 7:00 p.m. local time, after which he was led to the execution chamber. The day began with an unusual situation: a corrections officer reported that Smith was resisting. Once on the stretcher, Smith tried to console those present, repeatedly assuring “I got it, I got it.”
Smith’s figure resonated in the room when, referring to his execution as his “release date,” he proclaimed that he finally felt free. Hood, intervening during the final preparations, applied oil to Smith’s head in a gesture of anointment. The reverend recalled how, when reciting Bible passages, Smith responded with remarkable energy.
As the time of execution approached, Smith continued to voice his defiance. Kenneth Eugene Smith never took his eyes off his loved ones or family members during his execution, checking their faces one by one, smiling and making a gesture with his fingers several times that meant “I love you.”
Five journalists from media outlets like The Montgomery Advertiser and The Associated Press, along with Smith’s relatives, witnessed the outcome of a long wait that ended at 7:53 p.m. Reporters meticulously divided tasks to document the historic event, as Roney told The Times. Reporters who covered the execution noted Smith’s failed attempts to move and his final interaction with his loved ones.
In the narrow space of the witness room, approximately 2.44 by 3.66 meters, the atmosphere was permeated with a strong smell of disinfectant, marking a somber contrast with Smith’s gestures of love and farewell. At the same time, in an adjoining witness room, the murder victim’s children and other relatives watched the event with mixed emotions.
Ralph Chapoco of The Alabama Reflector reported how Smith attempted to reassure his relatives with meaningful gestures: “From the moment the curtain opened and throughout the entire time the prison staff read the death sentence, Kenneth Eugene Smith did not take his eyes off of his supporters or members of his family. …he looked at his faces one by one, smiled at each one of them and several times made a sign with his fingers that meant “I love you.”
Smith appeared to be struggling to breathe for about four minutes, during which time he also tried, in vain, to free himself from the safety bands holding him to the gurney, according to reporter Marty Roney. for many years from The Montgomery Advertiser.
Commissioner John Hamm of the Alabama prison system attempted to explain the condemned man’s behavior by suggesting that he had tried to hold his breath once the Nitrogen began to flow, which could have prolonged his agony. Mike Sennett, the victim’s son Elizabeth Sennett said during a press conference that there was almost total silence while they observed Kenneth Smith’s seizures.
For his part, Mike Sennett, son of the deceased at the hands of Smith, Elizabeth Sennett and present in the room intended for the victim’s family during the execution, shared his impressions at a press conference, stating their inability to forget the violent last moments of Kennet Smith. According to Sennett, there was almost total silence as they watched the condemned man’s convulsions.
After more than 35 years of waiting, Kenneth Smith’s execution had finally taken place. and with this, the case was closed. The execution ended at 8:15 p.m. local time, when the curtains of the witness room intended for the media were closed.
Deanna Smith, wife of the convicted Kenneth Smith, denounced that there was a “lack of compassion” at the moments late of her husband. Mike Sennett, visibly affected and without his glasses, tried to read some notes prepared for the occasion, expressing that the family was not celebrating, but rather that they felt relieved that the agony was over.
On the other hand, in an impromptu press conference at the hotel where they were staying, Deanna Smith, Kenneth’s wife who married him while in prison in 2021, shared his heartbreaking experience. Wearing a T-shirt that read “Never Alone,” Deanna described how her husband “suffered seizures and struggled to breathe for at least 10 minutes.” “My question to you is, where is humanity? Where is the compassion?,” she questioned, criticizing the presence of the press during those heartbreaking moments.
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