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Witnesses describe chilling process of how death row inmate died after ‘inhumane’ method used for first time in world
Featured Image Credit: Alabama Department of Corrections / Getty Stock Image

Witnesses describe chilling process of how death row inmate died after ‘inhumane’ method used for first time in world

Kenneth Smith was executed in Alabama after being convicted in a murder-for-hire plot

Witnesses to the execution of Death Row inmate Kenneth Smith have described the process of how he died by a controversial new method.

Smith was executed at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama yesterday (25 January) after a previous attempt to end his life failed in 2022.

The 58-year-old was sentenced to death in 1989 after being convicted of killing a preacher's wife, Elizabeth Sennett, in a murder-for-hire plot.

Executioners originally attempted to kill Smith via lethal injection when he first went to the death chamber in 2022, but they were forced to abandon the execution after failing to find a vein.

Smith then became a candidate to undergo a new method of execution using nitrogen gas; a method which has been authorized by three states, Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi, but had never before been used on a human.

The inmate attempted to appeal the decision, arguing death by nitrogen hypoxia was cruel and unusual punishment, but he lost his final two appeals and went to the death chamber for the second and final time yesterday.

Death by nitrogen gas involves an inmate breathing in pure nitrogen, consequently depriving them of the oxygen they need to survive.

Kenneth Smith was executed via nitrogen hypoxia on 25 January.
Alabama Department of Corrections

A journalist and witness to Smith's death spoke to the BBC about the process afterwards, recalling how Smith continued to criticise the method even in his final moments.

"Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards," Smith said in his final statement. "Thank you for supporting me. Love all of you."

As executioners began to administer the gas, Smith is said to have smiled, nodded towards his family and signed the words 'I love you'.

Witness Lee Hedgepeth told the BBC he had never seen an execution unfold like Smith's did.

"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," Hedgepeth said.

"Kenny just began to gasp for air repeatedly and the execution took about 25 minutes total."

The nitrogen was administered via a mask.
Getty Stock Image

However, Alabama corrections Commissioner John Hamm said the 'thrashing' reaction was 'expected' as part of the side effects of nitrogen hypoxia.

Smith's death was confirmed in a statement by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who 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."

Following Smith's death, Attorney General Steve Marshall said the use of nitrogen gas had proved to be 'an effective and humane method of execution', in contrast to the 'dire predictions' that had been made by critics of the method, who had described the process as 'inhumane'.

"Justice has been served," Marshall said.

Smith's legal team said after the execution it was 'deeply saddened' by the events, noting that the jury in Smith's case had voted against ending his life, but that the decision was overridden by a judge.

Topics: US News, Crime