ATMORE, Alabama – A prisoner in Alabama has made history as the first inmate in the world to be executed with nitrogen gas. Convicted murderer Kenneth Smith, 58, was put to death after the US Supreme Court declined a legal bid to halt his sentence. His official time of death was 8.25pm on Thursday (2.25am UK time). Witnesses reported that the execution took about 22 minutes, during which Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes.
State authorities had predicted unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes, but the reality was much different. The use of nitrogen gas for execution is highly controversial, with critics arguing that it is cruel and experimental. This method involves clamping a mask tightly to the face, covering the mouth and nose, and then feeding the mask with nitrogen gas, effectively suffocating the individual.
Smith was convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of Elizabeth Sennett, who was found with multiple stab wounds. His execution came after he survived a botched lethal injection in 2022, prompting a review of the state’s death penalty procedures. The decision to use nitrogen gas, which had never been used before anywhere, raised ethical and human rights concerns. Reverend Jeff Hood, who witnessed the execution, recounted a different reality from what Alabama had predicted, describing minutes of struggle for Smith’s life.
Alabama’s Attorney General Steve Marshall hailed the execution as historic, emphasizing the state’s moral judgment of the ultimate penalty for horrific crimes. However, anti-death-penalty activists argue that Alabama’s new method is both inhumane and easy to carry out. After the execution, Mike Sennett, the son of the victim, expressed mixed emotions, acknowledging that justice was served for his mother.
Smith’s execution, involving an untested method to execute a death row prisoner, has drawn attention to the ethics and methods of capital punishment. The Supreme Court justices’ decision not to intervene in Smith’s legal challenge, despite the first instance causing him severe trauma, has sparked debate about constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The use of Smith as a “guinea pig” for testing a new execution method has raised concerns about the ethical implications of such experimentation.
As the first execution of its kind, Smith’s case highlights the ongoing debate surrounding the methods and ethical considerations of capital punishment. With the world watching, the impact of this historic event could reverberate far beyond the State of Alabama.