“The Most Horrific Thing I’ve Ever Seen”

Former death row inmates who were exonerated, from left, Randall Padgent, Gary Drinkard and Ron Wright, were among the nearly one hundred protestors gathered at the state capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday Jan. 23, 2024, to ask Governor Kay Ivey to stop the planned execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser / AP) (Caption & Photo from AP)

Last Thursday, the state government of Alabama conducted the first ever execution of a human being using nitrogen gas. The man executed was 58-year-old Kenneth Smith, who was twice convicted of the brutal stabbing of Elizabeth Sennett in 1988. His accomplice in the killing had already been executed in 2010 via lethal injection. The state had attempted to execute Smith the same way, but botched the 2022 execution attempt when the executioner couldn’t find a vein suitable for injection. The state had been looking for a new way to execute people since then because it had already botched two other execution attempts that year alone. They had not been able to get the deadly cocktail from a number of European drug manufacturers who didn’t want their drugs used for killings that “harken back to the holocaust.”

The state had promised in court papers that nitrogen hypoxia, as the new method is known, would “rapidly lower oxygen levels in the mask, ensuring unconsciousness in seconds.” The next day at a congratulatory press conference, the Alabama Attorney General, Steve Marshall, described the procedure as “textbook,” and then made a statement that showed the callous sickness of those who imprison and punish others. He said, “Alabama has done it, and now so can you. And we stand ready to assist you in implementing this method in your states.” Alabama will probably get more practice in the new method before they can assist other states, as they have 43 other death row inmates they’re waiting to kill.

The reality of the execution as described by the few witnesses seemed quite different than what the Attorney General described. The entire, torturous process lasted not seconds, but 22 minutes. In an interview, the Reverend Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual advisor and witness to four other executions, described the  execution in great detail and said “it was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen.” “It was appalling,” said Deborah Denno, an expert on execution methods at Fordham University Law School. “Pain for two to four minutes, particularly when you’re talking about somebody who’s suffocating to death — that’s a really long period of time and a torturous period of time.”

Beyond the cruelty of the execution itself, it is also worth remembering why Smith committed the crime. He and his accomplice did it for money. They were paid a shockingly low $1,000 each, suggesting that both were desperate for money. They were paid by the victim’s husband, a pastor who was himself deeply in debt and wanted to collect insurance money for her death. Once again, the dull compulsion of economic need was a driving force in one human’s cruelty to another.

What’s the excuse of the Alabama’s political caste and attorney general?