Historic first nitrogen gas execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith took 22 MINUTES and murderer ‘writhed and shook’ for two minutes while ‘pulling against the restraints’: Last words declared method ‘a step back for humanity’

Kenneth Eugene Smith has become the first person in history to be executed with nitrogen gas.

The convicted killer, 58, had a tight gas mask placed over his nose and mouth before a stream of 100 percent nitrogen gas suffocated him inside the execution chamber at the William C. Holman prison in Atmore, Alabama. 

Smith was officially pronounced dead at 8:25 local time, following a 22-minute ordeal where he appeared to remain conscious for several minutes. He shook violently and pulled on the restraints on the gurney, continuing to breathe the nitrogen gas heavily until he succumbed and passed out. 

In his final words, delivered through the gas mask on his face, Smith said: ‘Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards… I’m leaving with love, peace and light.’

He made an ‘I love you sign’ with his hands to his family in the witness box, adding: ‘Thank you for supporting me. Love, love all of you.’  

He was sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher’s wife in 1988, where he was paid just $1,000 for the hit. 

Smith’s pastor John Ewell told DailyMail.com before his execution that the killer was ‘really struggling’ with the reality of his imminent death, and officials said he barely touched his final meal of steak, hashbrowns and eggs from Waffle House. 

Kenneth Eugene Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 after admitting the murder-for-hire killing of a pastor’s wife who was beaten and stabbed in 1988. On Thursday evening, he became the first person in US history to be executed with nitrogen gas 

Elizabeth Sennett, 45, (right) was found dead on March 18, 1988, in the couple's home in Alabama's Colbert County. She had been stabbed eight times in the chest and once on each side of neck

Elizabeth Sennett, 45, (right) was found dead on March 18, 1988, in the couple’s home in Alabama’s Colbert County. She had been stabbed eight times in the chest and once on each side of neck

The convicted killer, 58, was put to death in the William C. Holman facility's execution chamber in Atmore, Alabama

The convicted killer, 58, was put to death in the William C. Holman facility’s execution chamber in Atmore, Alabama 

The historic execution divided opinions, including among Supreme Court justices who voted 6-3 to allow the procedure to go ahead, with the untested method previously branded ‘torture’ by the UN. 

Smith’s execution marked the first time a new method had been used on America’s death row since lethal injections were first introduced 42 years ago. 

But one of the primary reasons Alabama has turned to nitrogen gas for Smith’s execution has been the widespread struggles American prisons have had in obtaining lethal injection drugs in recent years. 

Thursday’s execution opens up the possibility nitrogen hypoxia could be used in upcoming executions, with the Alabama Attorney General’s office saying after Smith’s death the method ‘was intended to be – and has now proved to be – an effective and humane method of execution.’ 

The apparent victory lap taken by Alabama officials in the wake of the execution – with Governor Kay Ivey also dubbing it ‘closure’ – sparked backlash from opponents of the new method.

Maya Foa, director of human rights organization Reprieve, told DailyMail.com: ‘They said lethal injection was humane – that was a lie. They’ll claim this execution was humane, and that is a lie, too. 

‘The whole purpose of these methods is to hide pain. How many more prisoners must die agonizing deaths before we see executions for what they really are: the state violently taking a human life?’ 

Before his final appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court, Smith’s pastor told DailyMail.com he was ‘putting a lot of hope into this thing being stopped’ – after his previous scheduled execution in November 2022 was called off after painful hours of botched attempts to inject him with an IV line. 

According to the Alabama Department of Corrections, Smith’s final day began with him refusing a breakfast of eggs, biscuits, grape jelly, apple sauce and orange juice. 

He then received a tray for lunch but again refused it, although he did drink Mountain Dew, Pepsi and coffee. 

Smith was ordered to have only clear liquids from 4pm, after barely touching his final meal, which came from Waffle House slathered in steak sauce. 

His last phone call was with his wife, Deanna Smith, who was among the few witnesses to the execution, also including Smith’s sons, Steven Tiggleman and Michael Bryant, his friend Harold Hedgepeth, and attorney Robert Glass. 

Also in attendance was the sons of his victim, Elizabeth Sennett, who told 1819 News that they wanted to watch to make sure the 35-year case of her mother’s killer is ‘over with.’ 

‘He’s [Smith] actually probably laughing, or has been because he said he would get out of that first one, and he did. So, this one better go through, or we are going to have some serious problems,’ added Charles Sennett before the execution.

Elizabeth Sennett, 45, was murdered by Smith and another man in 1989, after her husband paid them each $1,000 to kill her so he could collect on her insurance

Elizabeth Sennett, 45, was murdered by Smith and another man in 1989, after her husband paid them each $1,000 to kill her so he could collect on her insurance 

A heavy security presence was stationed outside the prison before the execution, with some protestors gathering nearby to demonstrate against the untested execution method

A heavy security presence was stationed outside the prison before the execution, with some protestors gathering nearby to demonstrate against the untested execution method 

The execution method split opinions for weeks heading to the final date, with some feeling Smith’s crime in 1988 was worthy of his place on death row.

 

Aged 22, Smith was one of two men convicted in the murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett, 45, the wife of preacher Charles Sennet Sr. who hired the men kill his wife in an insurance plot. 

His initial 1989 conviction was overturned on appeal, but he was retried and convicted again in 1996, where he was sentenced to death. 

Prosecutors said he and John Forrest Parker were each paid $1,000 for the hit, with Sennett’s husband hoping to collect on her insurance as he was deeply in debt. 

She was found dead March 18 that year in her home in Colbert County with eight stab wounds in the chest and one on each side of her neck. 

After finding out that he was suspected of being involved in the plot, Charles Sennett Sr. killed himself. 

The controversial execution was praised by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey following news of Smith’s death, feeling it was justice served for Sennett’s murder. 

Ivey said in a statement: ‘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.’

John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted in the slaying, was executed in 2010

John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted in the slaying, was executed in 2010

Despite warnings from human rights groups over the use of the method, AG Marshall insisted that Smith’s fears are unfounded. Quoting experts including euthanasia expert Dr. Philip Nitschke, Marshall said nitrogen hypoxia is a ‘peaceful’ way to end a human life. 

In the dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s approval of the execution hours before Smith’s death, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that she felt the execution method was cruel.  

Smith wore a mask that had never been fitted for his face until the moment he was strapped down, and officials were banned from intervening even if he began choking on his own vomit. 

Although Smith was granted the chance to say his last words, he was also forced to speak them through the gas mask before the nitrogen was turned on.  

Sotomayor felt Smith was a ‘surprising candidate’ for the untested method – with his previous scheduled execution in November 2022 called off after painful hours of botched attempts to inject him with an IV line.

Smith recalled being in ‘great pain’ because those tasked with injecting the lethal drugs – midazolam hydrochloride, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride – were stabbing his muscle rather than finding a vein.

Smith has since said that the ceaseless jabs became so ridiculous they turned into farce, especially when one of the executioners eventually asked Smith to squeeze his hand to make the vein stand out better – a request Smith declined.

Unable to find a second usable vein, Smith’s gurney was tilted so that his feet were pointed upwards in what he presumed was an attempt to get blood to his head and leave a vein in his neck more pronounced.

He was left for several minutes before the IV returned with an even larger needle in an attempt to attach a so-called central line (or central venous catheter) which is much longer than a regular intravenous line and goes all the way up to a vein near or inside the heart.

Smith reported that this pain became so excruciating after multiple attempts to use the larger needle successfully that he was shaking and wet himself.

Despite warnings from human rights organizations, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall says the execution is more gentle than Smith deserves

Despite warnings from human rights organizations, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall says the execution is more gentle than Smith deserves 

One of the arguments put forward by Smith’s attorneys before the execution was the possibility that the nitrogen gas mask may not be tight enough, allowing a small amount of oxygen in and causing extreme breathing pain. 

Euthanasia expert Dr. Philip Nitschke countered that nitrogen hypoxia was a painless way to die. 

Officials added that the gas mask was extensively tested, with AG Marshall saying the equipment was tested to ensure the execution was as humane as possible. 

Marshall also quoted Nitschke’s support of nitrogen hypoxia in assisted suicide as further evidence of how painless the execution will be. 

The planned use of nitrogen gas for the first-time sparked outrage in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s planned execution among human rights and prison reform advocates. 

Reprieve, an international human rights organization focused on incarceration, told DailyMail.com that even planning Smith’s execution using nitrogen hypoxia was a travesty. 

‘Execution with nitrogen gas is the latest effort to obscure the violence of the state taking a human life,’ the organization said. 

‘Despite almost fifty years of horrific scenes in the execution chamber as prisoners suffer agonizing deaths, proponents of capital punishment cling to the lie that it can be carried out humanely.

‘Alabama is once more seeking to hide the reality of what goes on in the execution chamber, switching methods to avoid having to answer questions about what went wrong last time, and now proposes to use a method that has been rejected by veterinarians as a way to kill animals.

‘Witnesses will not be able to tell how much Kenneth Smith is suffering as the nitrogen kills him: like the lethal injection protocol before it, the nitrogen protocol is specifically designed to hide pain. 

‘The state of Alabama has tortured Mr. Smith once, stabbing him with needles for hours, and by using him as a guinea pig for a dangerous, untested new method of execution, it is torturing him again.’ 

***
Read more at DailyMail.co.uk