Eyewitness account of the first nitrogen gas execution in the United States: A prisoner gasps for air and shakes.


ATMORY, Ala. – Alabama executed convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith with nitrogen gas on Thursday, making it the first state to use the new method to execute a human being.

Smith, 58, was pronounced dead at 8:25pm on Thursday. He appeared to convulse and shake violently for about four minutes after nitrogen gas began flowing through a full-face mask in an Alabama prison’s execution chamber.

Another two or three minutes passed before he appeared to lose consciousness, all so gasping for air that the stretcher shook several times. The execution took place in the execution chamber at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore more than three decades after he was convicted of killing 45-year-old Elizabeth Sinnett in a murder-for-hire scheme.

The US Supreme Court refused to halt the execution of the death sentence in a decision issued Thursday evening, with the court’s three liberal justices dissenting. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted Alabama’s failure to execute Smith in 2022, citing concerns about the state’s “hazy” protocol for its new procedures and the risk of protecting prisoners from cruel and unusual punishment. “This case shows how extremely fragile this protection can be,” she wrote.

Thursday’s execution was the first time a new method has been used in the United States since lethal injection, the method now most commonly used, was introduced in 1982. Here’s how it played out:

Kenneth Eugene Smith, sentenced for murder on November 14, 1989.

7:53 pm

The curtains were open in the media witness room, where Smith had four witnesses. He was wearing a mask that covered the entire face with a plastic tube coming out of a rectangular hole in the concrete wall of the execution chamber connected to the mask.

Smith was strapped to a cruciate stretcher, his arms and body secured with straps. He raised his head to look into the witness room and seemed to recognize the witnesses who were there for him.

He smiled through the mask and made a sign language “I love you” and “OK” sign with his left hand. He was moving the fingers of his left hand as if he was counting.

7:55 pm

He was allowed to make a final statement. His words were hard to hear, and were muffled by the mask.

“Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step back,” he said. Smith thanked those who supported him during this process and his previous execution attempt.

“I love you all,” he said after he finished his statement. “Thank you for supporting me. Love you all.”

7:56 pm

The Rev. Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual advisor, approached Smith holding a Bible and they appeared to pray.

7:57 pm

A prison employee inside the execution chamber approached Smith and examined the mask seal. It appears that the nitrogen is starting to flow.

7:57 to 8:01 p.m

Smith was writhing and convulsing on the gurney. He appeared to be fully conscious when the gas started flowing.

He took a deep breath, his body shaking violently and his eyes rolling into the back of his head. Hood was standing about 15 feet away, and made the sign of the cross several times.

Smith clenched his fists, his legs shaking under the tightly draped white sheet that covered him from the neck down. He seemed to be gasping for air.

The stretcher shook several times during this time. Hood removed his glasses and wiped away his tears.

8:02 pm

Smith appeared to lose consciousness. His chest remained still for about 20 seconds, then he took several large gasps for air.

There appears to be saliva or tears inside the face mask. She cried as a witness to Smith.

8:06 pm

Smith’s panting seemed to slow.

8:07 pm

Smith appeared to be breathing his last.

8:15 pm

The curtains of the witness room were closed.

At a news conference following the execution, state Department of Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm said Smith’s reactions were “…not out of the ordinary.”

“It appears that Smith held his breath for as long as he could, struggling against his restraints,” Hamm said. “This was expected.”

Nitrogen flowed into Smith’s mask for about 15 minutes, Ham said.

There were five media witnesses in the room and they were transported to the jail from the media center about 4 miles away at 6:58 p.m. They remained in a trailer outside until about 7:47 p.m. when they were escorted inside.

The delay was due to difficulties connecting EKG monitors to Smith, Ham said, adding later that Smith had no difficulty with prison system staff trying to connect EKG monitors to him.

Hood and two prison system employees stood in the execution chamber, about 15 feet from Smith. They did not wear masks.

In a change from previous executions using lethal injection as a method, a staff member did not approach Smith and check his level of consciousness when he appeared to stop breathing.

Alabama previously attempted to execute Smith

In 2022, Smith He was strapped to the gurney to be executed by lethal injection But prison officials were unable to access his veins before the death sentence expired and the execution process was halted.

At that time, the arrest warrant covered 24 hours. Smith’s lawyers say he endured pain and suffering as employees tried to mark the lines.

On Thursday, Smith was ordered to be executed for 30 hours, from midnight until 6 a.m. Friday. This 30-hour window was put in place after the state’s first failed attempt to kill Smith.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey confirmed the time of death in a statement about three minutes later.

“After more than 30 years and subsequent attempts to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his heinous crimes,” Ivey said. “The execution was carried out lawfully by nitrogen hypoxia, a method previously requested by Mr. Smith as an alternative to lethal injection.”

Smith was convicted of murder for hire

Smith was convicted of capital murder on November 14, 1989, in the murder-for-hire plot by Elizabeth Sinnett in Colbert County. She was the wife of Reverend Charles Sinnett, who hired Smith and his co-defendant to kill her in an attempt to collect on her life insurance policy.

Elizabeth Sennett was stabbed to death in her home. Charles Sennett, who was in debt at the time, died by suicide a few days after her death after it became clear that investigators suspected he was involved.

Smith’s original conviction was overturned, and he was found guilty of capital murder again in 1996. His co-accused, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Marty Rooney at mroney@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on the Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama executes man with nitrogen gas. How to play the new way

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