Alabama made history on Thursday as it executed convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith using nitrogen gas, the first time this method of capital punishment has been employed globally.
The controversial execution has condemnation from the United Nations, while Alabama officials maintain that the process was carried out humanely.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was executed at Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, becoming the first person to be put to death using pure nitrogen gas anywhere in the world.
The process began at 19:53 local time, and Smith was pronounced dead at 20:25. Witnesses reported that Smith thrashed violently on the gurney, and the entire execution took around 25 minutes. According to reports, Smith’s final words criticized Alabama for taking humanity a step backwards.
Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted in 1989 of murdering Elizabeth Sennett, the wife of a preacher, in a killing for hire plot.
The victim was beaten with a fireplace stabbed in the chest and neck. Kenneth Eugene Smith was one of two men involved in the crime, with the other, John Forrest Parker, having been executed in 2010.
The motive behind the murder was a $1,000 payment by Sennett’s husband, Charles Sennett Sr., who killed himself as investigators closed in.
Kenneth Eugene Smith’s trial was by controversy, as the jury initially voted in favor of a life sentence, but the judge overruled them and imposed the death penalty.
Alabama had previously attempted to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith by lethal injection in 2022, but the process was called off at the last minute due to difficulties in finding a vein. Smith’s legal team concerns about the state’s competence in carrying out executions.
The use of nitrogen gas has been considered an alternative method as obtaining lethal injection drugs has become challenging, contributing to a decline in the use of the death penalty nationally.
Alabama, along with two other U.S. states, has approved nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method. The execution by nitrogen gas has controversy and condemnation.
Witnesses reported that Kenneth Eugene Smith thrashed and gasped for air during the process, lasting about 25 minutes. Some argue that the untested nature of nitrogen gas execution is risky, causing violent convulsions.
Medical professionals and human rights advocates had warned against the use of nitrogen gas, stating that it could result in a range of mishaps, from violent convulsions to survival in a vegetative state.
The United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights had urged a halt to the execution, citing it to amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under international human rights law.
Kenneth Eugene Smith’s legal team made multiple attempts to halt the execution, arguing that the nitrogen gas method has a constitutional risk of cruel and unusual punishment.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined Kenneth Eugene Smith’s last-minute appeal to stop the execution, with three liberal justices dissenting from the majority’s ruling.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed concern that Alabama had selected Kenneth Eugene Smith as a guinea pig to test a method never attempted before.
The execution has mixed reactions from the public and the family of the victim, Elizabeth Sennett. Mike Sennett, the son of the victim, expressed that the family wouldn’t be celebrating but said that Smith had paid his debt. He addressed that nothing could bring his mother back and expressed relief that the day was over.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall defended the execution, stating that it was justice served after more than 30 years of attempts by Smith to game the system.
They said that nitrogen gas had proven to be an effective and humane method, countering predictions from activists and the media.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights had requested Alabama to reconsider the execution, addressing the violation of human rights standards.