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Alabama Conducts First Nitrogen Hypoxia Execution

Alabama killed condemned prisoner Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, on January 25, 2024, the first execution conducted using nitrogen hypoxia, a controversial method that suffocates victims with nitrogen gas and robs them of oxygen. The risks of the procedure are so unknown that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) required a signed liability waiver before granting permission for Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood to stand by Smith as his spiritual advisor.

Media witnesses described a brutal death. About 10 minutes after the gas began flowing through his face mask, Smith writhed in agony for another two minutes—DOC Commission John Hamm later insisted the movements were “involuntary”—followed by five minutes of heavy breathing before the curtain closed over the viewing area. DOC declared him dead about 10 minutes after that.

The state failed in a gruesome attempt to kill Smith on November 17, 2022, prodding him with needles as the prisoner screamed in pain while they raced to find a vein suitable for lethal injection before his death warrant expired at midnight. He then sued and reached a settlement with the state, which agreed the next attempt would have to employ nitrogen hypoxia—at the time still a hypothetical execution method because no protocol had been developed.

Smith and co-defendant John Forrest Parker were convicted of the 1988 contract killing of Elizabeth Sennett, 45, each paid $1,000 by her husband, Rev. Charles Sennett, also 45. The pastor of Westside Church of Christ in Sheffield—who was having an affair and deeply in debt—had also taken out a life insurance policy on his wife. He committed suicide a week after her killing, as investigators closed in. For introducing him to the killers, a tenant, Billy Gray Williams, got a life sentence. Smith was also given a life sentence by a jury, but the judge overrode that decision and condemned him in 1989. Parker was sentenced to death and executed in 2010 at age 42.

Even though DOC hasn’t been able to remedy unconstitutional conditions of confinement that are the subject of two years-long class-action federal suits, it somehow managed to cobble together a plan to carry out Smith’s killing in just a few months. For his part, Rev. Hood was unimpressed; touring the death chamber hours before the execution he noticed a pair of oxygen monitors installed for his safety were unplugged.

“What I saw did nothing to minimize my fears,” Hood said. “It only increased my fears of the incompetence.”

As PLN reported, Hood’s involvement in Oklahoma’s September 2023 execution of Anthony Sanchez drew criticism after the prisoner fired attorneys appealing his death sentence and spurned the help of advocates for a clemency grant. [See: PLN, Feb. 2024, p.61.]

Smith’s killing marked the first use of a new execution method in the U.S. since lethal injection—now the most common procedure—was introduced with Texas’ December 1982 murder of Charles Ray Brooks, 40. Also known as Shareef Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, he and accomplice Woody Lourdes were convicted of the execution-style fatal shooting of Fort Worth mechanic David Gregory while test-driving a used car in 1976. Lourdes’ conviction was overturned, after which he was re-sentenced in 1978 to a 40-year term and paroled in 1989.  


Sources: AP News, NPR News, Washington Post

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