Historic Execution: Woman’s Murderer Faces Unprecedented Nitrogen Gas Method in the United States

Kenneth Smith

Kenneth Smith, convicted of the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett, faced a historic execution in Alabama as he became the first person in the state and the United States to be put to death using nitrogen gas. The execution, which occurred yesterday Thursday, marked a significant departure from the initially attempted lethal injection in 2022.

The first attempt at execution by lethal injection proved unsuccessful, prompting Alabama’s Republican governor, Kay Ivey, to launch a comprehensive review of the state’s death penalty procedures. Months later, the authorities decided to proceed with Kenneth Smith’s execution using nitrogen gas.

The execution process commenced at 7:53 pm, with Smith placed on a stretcher and fitted with a special mask connected to a cylinder filled with nitrogen, eliminating any flow of oxygen. Five journalists observed the execution through a glass wall, reporting that Smith remained conscious for several minutes after the administration of nitrogen. Witnesses noted he experienced shaking and rolled on the stretcher for two minutes, followed by deep breaths and a gradual slowing of breathing, eventually leading to lethargy.

Prior to the nitrogen gas supply, Smith delivered a final speech, expressing his view that the execution represented a step backward for humanity. Addressing his wife and relatives present, he said, “I am leaving the world with love, peace, and joy. Love to you all.”

Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm, in a post-execution news conference, addressed questions about Smith’s movements on the stretcher. Hamm explained that Smith appeared to resist breathing normally, but given the involuntary nature of the process and the challenges in breathing, such reactions were expected.

Kenneth Smith’s conviction in 1988 stemmed from the murder of Elizabeth Sennett, orchestrated by her husband, Charles Sennett, and Smith as his accomplice. The majority of Supreme Court justices allowed the execution by lethal injection in 2022. Charles Sennett, responsible for the murder conspiracy, later committed suicide. Smith’s accomplice was executed in 2010.

In May 2023, Smith contested the decision for a second execution, citing violations of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. He argued that the first failed attempt caused severe physical and psychological pain. Despite opposition from UN human rights experts and lawyers, Alabama authorities defended the use of nitrogen gas, asserting it as the most humane execution method known to date.