Witnesses inside chamber describe the horror of 'violent' 22-minute nitrogen gas execution of killer Kenneth Smith

26 January 2024, 12:32 | Updated: 26 January 2024, 14:18

Kenneth Eugene Smith suffered a protracted 'violent' death, according to witnesses
Kenneth Eugene Smith suffered a protracted 'violent' death, according to witnesses. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

The first man to be put to death by nitrogen gas writhed and gasped for air for almost ten minutes before he died in a ‘horror’ protracted death that lasted a total of 22 minutes, witnesses have revealed.

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Killer Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was executed using nitrogen hypoxia with a sealed mask over his face, strapped to a gurney in a chamber at the William C. Holman prison in Atmore, Alabama.

Experts had predicted he would be unconscious within seconds, but it took him seven minutes to pass out and another 15 before he was declared dead.

The state had promised his death would be quick and painless.

Smith’s final words were: “Tonight, Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards.”

He was pronounced dead at 8.25pm, 22 minutes after the gas was first administered.

Lee Hedgepeth, one of five journalists allowed inside to watch Smith put to 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”.

As the gas began to fill his mask, Smith signed ‘I love you’ to his wife, who was watching.

“I’m leaving with love, peace and light,” he declared.

He began gasping, panting, and trying to hold his breath to avoid inhaling the nitrogen.

Mr Hedgepeth said it was the “most violent execution” he had ever witnessed.

He told the BBC: “The execution starts at about 7.53. The nitrogen begins flowing into the gas mask and Kenny begins to violently shake against the straps that are holding him.

“That violent shaking lasts for about four or five minutes. I've witnessed five executions in Alabama. Four of them lethal injection. One with nitrogen and this was the most violent execution I have ever seen.

“Sitting beside me was Deanna Smith, the wife of Kenny. Once Kenny began to violently shake against those straps she began to sob. There were other media witnesses in the room, folks who had seen other executions, and I think there was a shock in the room at how violent the execution was.

“Doctors are not in the room during the execution. A doctor did pronounce Kenny dead afterwards but no doctor is visibly present in the execution chamber.

“The execution began around 7.53 and he was declared dead at 8.16 so around 20 something minutes.

“People in the room believe it was more violent than lethal injection,” he added.

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

Smith, who was convicted for a 1988 murder, lost two last-ditch appeals to halt his execution in the southern state of Alabama on Thursday.

The 58-year-old had a final meal of a T-bone steak, hash browns, eggs, and brown sauce from the Waffle House chain before he was put to death.

Mike Sennett, son of Smith's victim Elizabeth Sennett, and other family members speak after his execution
Mike Sennett, son of Smith's victim Elizabeth Sennett, and other family members speak after his execution. Picture: Alamy

He had been sentenced to death for killing preacher's wife Elizabeth Sennett, in a murder-for-hire plot.

Smith's legal team argued that nitrogen hypoxia was an "untested" method of execution, and constituted a cruel and unusual punishment. The appeals failed.

He was executed Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore on Thursday, being pronounced dead at 8:25pm local time (12.25am UK time)

The state had already tried to put Smith to death by lethal injection two years ago but the attempt failed as the executioners were unable to raise a vein before their death warrant expired at midnight.

Anti-death penalty activists place signs along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., ahead of the execution
Anti-death penalty activists place signs along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., ahead of the execution. Picture: Alamy

Nitrogen hypoxia is a new method of execution that has been introduced in Alabama alongside two other states due to difficulties in procuring the drugs typically used in lethal injections.

Witnesses of his death reported Smith writhing between two to four minutes, followed by around five minutes of heavy breathing before he was pronounced dead.

His execution by nitrogen made him the first person in the world to be put to death by this method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

His spiritual adviser labelled the execution “disgusting”, claiming he struggled for minutes.

"A great evil was unleashed on the state of Alabama tonight,” Reverend Jeffrey Hood said.

A sign for Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama
A sign for Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. Picture: Alamy

The state had said before the execution Smith would become unconscious within seconds and would die within minutes.

Speaking after his execution, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, confirmed Smith’s death.

She said: “After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes.

"I pray that Elizabeth Sennett's family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss."

While Ms Sennett's son, Charles Sennett Jr., told local media: "Some of these people out there say, ‘Well, he doesn’t need to suffer like that.’ Well, he didn’t ask Mama how to suffer?" said Sennett.

"They just did it. They stabbed her — multiple times."

Kenneth Eugene Smith
Kenneth Eugene Smith. Picture: Alamy

Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm said Smith’s shaking appeared to be involuntary movements and all the side effects had been “expected” based on their research.

"Nothing was out of the ordinary from what we were expecting,” he said.

The Alabama Department of Corrections shared the details of Smith’s final 48 hours before his execution.

They said he was visited by family, two friends, his spiritual adviser and his attorney.

He had a breakfast of two biscuits, eggs, grape jelly, applesauce and orange juice.

His final meal was T-bone steak and eggs with hash browns.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote ahead of his death: “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 world is watching."

Smith was one of two men convicted of murdering Ms Sennett, 45, in a murder-for-hire plot for $1,000 each in 1988.

Smith and his fellow hitman, John Forrest Parker, beat Ms Sennett with a fireplace implement and stabbed her in the chest and neck. Her death was staged to look like a home invasion and burglary.

Parker was executed in 2010.

The pair were brought in by Ms Sennett’s husband, a debt-laden preacher who wanted to collect insurance money. He later went onto kill himself amid investigations.

Smith admitted to being present at the time of Ms Sennett’s death but denied being the one to carry it out.

The jury made a recommendation for a life sentence but the judge overruled the recommendation, instead sentencing him to death.