Alabama nitrogen gas execution made man convulse ‘for minutes’: witness

Alabama executed a man Thursday night by nitrogen hypoxia, an untested method described by a witness as a “torturous execution” that shocked even correction officials in the room “who were visibly upset at how bad this thing went.”

Kenneth Eugene Smith was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. CT at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala.

It was the state’s second attempt to execute the 58-year-old, who was convicted for his role in the murder-for-hire killing of a woman in 1988. In 2022, his execution by lethal injection had to be called off when Alabama officials spent an hour trying to set intravenous lines for the injection drugs.

FILE - This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher's wife. Alabama will be allowed to put Smith to death with nitrogen gas, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, refusing to block what would be the nation's first execution by a new method since 1982. Alabama says it plans to replace the 58-year-old's breathing air with nitrogen gas on Thursday, Jan. 25, rendering him unconscious within seconds and killing him within minutes. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)
FILE – This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher’s wife. (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)

Thursday’s execution process took approximately 22 minutes. Smith, who was on a gurney, was fitted with a mask through which nitrogen gas flowed for about 15 minutes, state corrections commissioner John Hamm told reporters.

“Justice has been served,” State Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement Thursday night, adding nitrogen gas “has now proved to be an effective and humane method of execution” — the way it was “intended to be.”

But witnesses of the execution said Smith struggled for his life for minutes.

“We didn’t see somebody go unconscious in 30 seconds,” the Rev. Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual adviser, said. “We saw minutes of someone heaving back and forth. We saw spit. We saw all sorts of stuff from his mouth develop on the mask. We saw this mask tied to the gurney and him ripping his head forward over and over and over.”

Mike Sennett, son of Elizabeth Sennett, and other family members speak after Kenneth Eugene Smith's execution in Atmore, Ala., on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. Alabama executed convicted murderer Smith with nitrogen gas Thursday, putting him to death with a first-of-its-kind method that once again placed the U.S. at the forefront of the debate over capital punishment. Smith was convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)
Mike Sennett, son of Elizabeth Sennett, and other family members speak after Kenneth Eugene Smith’s execution in Atmore, Ala., on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

Smith’s execution came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block it. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who along with Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented, said “Alabama has selected [Smith] as its ‘guinea pig.’”

Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, echoed Sotomayor’s sentiment saying Smith’s execution, carried out “despite serious concerns … may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Anti-death penalty activists place signs along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., ahead of the scheduled execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. The state plans to put Smith to death with nitrogen gas, the first time the new method has been used in the United States. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)
Anti-death penalty activists place signs along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., ahead of the scheduled execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

“Alabama’s execution of Kenneth Smith in a horrific, reckless, and untested manner is a profound illustration of the barbaric practice of capital punishment,” Yasmin Cader, deputy yasal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Daily News in an email.

“It’s past time for our country to put an end to the death penalty instead of inventing new and more heinous ways of carrying it out,” she added.

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