Death penalty debate is relit in Alabama

(Photo credit: KQ2): Kenneth Eugene Smith (left) and his spiritual advisor, Jeff Hood (right)

On Thursday, Jan. 25 at 7:55 p.m, Kenneth Eugene Smith uttered the words, “Tonight Alabama caused humanity to take a step backwards. I’m leaving with love, peace and light. Thank you for supporting me, love all of you.” Those would be his final words. At 8:15 the curtains were closed and at 8:25 central time Smith was declared dead. Smith was the first person executed by way of nitrogen in American history. The execution took place at William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, AL, 10 miles from the Florida state line.

He was dressed in a prison uniform, but covered with a white sheet and strapped to an inclined gurney. Smith’s spiritual advisor, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood performed last rites and two execution workers closed the vent on his mask. Smith convulsed for roughly two minutes before slowly and heavily breathing for over five minutes before taking his final breath.

John Hamm, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, stated “…it appeared as if Smith was holding his breath.” He went on to add, “There was all expected and in the side of effects that we have seen, or researched, on nitrogen hypoxia. Nothing was out of the ordinary from what we were expecting.”

“What occurred last night was textbook,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall added Friday morning. “As of last night, nitrogen hypoxia as a means of execution is no longer an untested method. It is a proven one.”

Smith was on death row for a crime committed 30 years ago; the murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett in 1988. Rev. Charles Sennett hired Smith along with John Forrest Parker and Billy Gray Williams to kill his wife so he could collect the insurance money. All three men were convicted of her death. Parker was executed in 2010 and Williams, who was sentenced to life in prison, died in 2020. Only Parker and Smith entered Sennett’s home upon her murder. Rev. Charles Sennett died by suicide a week after the murder of his wife.

Michael Sennett, son of Charles and Elizabeth, participated in a press conference after the execution and noted that Parker and Smith had been incarcerated almost twice as long as he knew his late mother. “All three of the people involved in this case years ago, we have forgiven them, not today but we have in the past,” he said. “Nothing happened here today is going to bring Mom back. It’s kind of a bittersweet day. We are not going to be jumping around, whooping and holler, hooray-ing and all that. I’ll end by saying Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett got her justice tonight.”

This was not the first time the state of Alabama has attempted to execute Smith. In 2022, he was attempted to be put to death but after over four hours on the gurney, the execution was called off. This was because the execution workers failed to place the IV line. The state moved towards their secondary method, nitrogen hypoxia. This method was untested but Steve Marshall said it was the “most painless and humane method of execution known to man.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association deemed nitrogen hypoxia unacceptable for euthanization of all animals except for pigs due to it being distressing to the animal. Yet the state of Alabama, among others, deems it an appropriate secondary method to execute inmates on death row.

“Everybody is telling me I’m going to suffer,” Smith told NPR in December. “I’m absolutely terrified.” 

Smith’s lawyers appealed through both state and federal court systems, but to no avail. They argued that this method of execution was untested and violated Smith’s 8th Amendment right of No Cruel and Unusual Punishment. The Supreme Court rejected the appeals on Wednesday, Jan. 24. “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,” Democrat Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote. “The world is watching.”

Deanna Smith, Smith’s widow, made a statement Thursday evening, saying “While everybody was waiting for Christmas, all excited about Christmas, our family was waiting for the courts to decide the fate of my husband and whether he was going to suffer or were they going to stand up and do the right thing. We say we are a country that believes in the Constitution, and I am sorry, but I just don’t see that.”

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said the execution was justice for Smith’s crimes. “After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes,” she said in a statement. “I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss.” 

Former death row inmates, who were all exonerated, Randall Padgent, Gary Drinkard and Ron Wright led hundreds of protestors outside the Alabama State capitol in Montgomery on Tuesday, Jan. 23. They demanded action to stop the planned execution. Protestors held signs with statements like, “All Life is Precious”, “Death Row is Mental Torture”, “Say NO to the Gas Chamber”, and “Thou Shall Not Kill!”

Smith’s execution has sparked waves of discussion about the morality of the death penalty in America. As of now, 27 states have laws in place allowing the death penalty. Six of these have added nitrogen hypoxia as a secondary option. As Rev. Dr. Hood said following Smith’s execution, “The eyes of the world are on this impending moral apocalypse.”

“Our prayer is that people will not turn their heads…”

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