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  • Andy Alembik

Alabama, Unprecedented, Executes Death Row Inmate Using Nitrogen Gas

Courtesy of Alabama.com



On January 25, with a never-before-used method, Alabama executed death row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith using nitrogen gas. 


In 1988, in Colbert County, Alabama, Elizabeth Sennett was murdered. Her husband was Charles Sennett Sr., a preacher. Court documents state that Charles Sennett (Sr.) had recruited Billy Gray Williams, who in turn recruited Smith and John Forrest Parker, to kill his wife.” There was testimony that Sennett had been having an affair, along with proof that he wanted his wife’s life insurance payout. A week after his wife’s murder, he became a suspect in the investigation and committed suicide. Parker was executed in 2010 for his role in the murder. Williams is currently serving life in prison without parole

As for Smith, this was not his first time in the execution chamber for this crime. On November 17, 2022, he spent four hours strapped to a gurney as an execution team attempted and failed to find a suitable vein for a lethal injection. A filed complaint alleges that as the night progressed….Mr. Smith was subjected to ever-escalating levels of pain and torture.” When the execution was finally called off, Smith was trembling, sweating, hyperventilating, dizzy, and could not lift his own arms to be handcuffed or walk unassisted.” 


This was Alabama’s third failed execution since 2018. After Smith’s failed execution, on November 21, 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) called for a pause in executions and a “top-to-bottom” review of the system. This was soon reversed. In a press conference on December 5, 2022, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall announced, “I stand before you today to be very clear that, so far as I and my office are concerned, there is no moratorium nor will there be on capital punishment in Alabama.”


There are many legal and ethical concerns regarding the death penalty system in Alabama and in other states that still use this practice. Smith’s execution saga highlights several of these.


First and most significantly, the method of execution. Smith was executed with nitrogen gas, which induced nitrogen hypoxia, a method never used for capital punishment until his execution. As reported by ABC, “Nitrogen hypoxia is the term for a means of death caused by breathing in enough nitrogen gas to deprive the body of oxygen.” The UN Human Rights office issued a statement of concern, with their spokesperson stating, “We have serious concerns that Smith's execution in these circumstances could breach the prohibition on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as his right to effective remedies.” Several witnesses of Smiths execution said that during his execution he “shook and writhed on a gurney,” “struggled against his restraints” and “repeatedly gasped and heaved.”


A second concern is the use of judicial override. According to the New York Times, “At his sentencing, 11 out of 12 jurors voted to spare his life and to sentence him to life in prison, but the judge in the case, N. Pride Tompkins, decided to overrule their decision and condemned him to death.” Judicial override can allow a judge to forgo what a jury rules and unilaterally impose the death penalty. This practice ended in Alabama in 2017 and is no longer in practice anywhere in the United States. However, death sentences decided by judicial override years ago, like Smith’s, continue to be carried out. On top of this, Alabama still doesn’t require a jury verdict to be unanimous for the death penalty, a rule used by only one other state.


Additionally, the average time between sentencing and execution for the death penalty is higher than many people may think. Smith was sentenced to death in 1988 and executed in 2024. That's 36 years spent on death row. This is not unusual: in 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that the average person on death row spends 22 years waiting for their execution. 


Finally, executions in the United States are often not carried out by medical professionals or even people with sufficient medical training. Many physicians follow the ancient Hippocratic Oath, which explicitly states, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan.” Because of this, executions are often carried out by people with little medical training. Even if a doctor may not subscribe to this moral code, the American Medical Association code of ethics states that “as a member of a profession dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so, a physician must not participate in a legally authorized execution.”


Support for the death penalty is waning in the United States. Between 1996 and 2020, Pew reported that support for capital punishment fell from 78% to 52%. But Alabama, instead of moving away from the death penalty, is now trying untested methods of execution — with no signs of ceasing these deadly experiments anytime soon.

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