Securing the necessary drugs for lethal injections has posed significant challenges for states practicing the death penalty in the past decade. Alabama, having experienced several failed executions, opted for a shift. The state declared its intention to shift to gas as the method for carrying out death sentences on inmates in its death row.
Recently, the state conducted its inaugural gas execution, and detractors argue that it did not go well. The wife of the inmate allegedly screamed throughout the execution. Both the United Nations and the European Union have expressed criticism of the procedure.
On January 25, Alabama carried out the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted of fatally stabbing Elizabeth Sennett in 1988 for a sum of $1,000. The hired hitman was Charles Sennett, the victim’s husband and a preacher. A week later, he took his own life. Smith was convicted for his involvement in the murder-for-hire scheme and received a death sentence.
The execution commenced at 7:53 p.m. Central Time. Roughly two minutes afterward, the condemned murderer conveyed his last words, asserting to onlookers that the state’s execution of his death sentence marked a regression for humanity. John Hamm, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, stated that Smith passed away at 8:25 p.m. following the placement of a mask over his face, administering pure nitrogen.
Deanna, Smith’s wife, exclaimed in distress during the execution. Jeff Hood, the family’s spiritual adviser, informed the New York Post that the entire process lasted 22 minutes, significantly exceeding the duration authorities had conveyed to the family. According to Hood, there was no observation of Smith becoming unconscious within the promised 30 seconds.
Observers reported that Smith remained conscious for as long as 10 minutes while inhaling the gas, experiencing a slow suffocation until his death. The inmate struggled against his restraints, with Hood noting that he repeatedly jerked his head forward.
Smith had previously endured a failed execution attempt in the state. In 2022, the executioner persistently probed him with needles in an attempt to locate a suitable vein for administering a lethal combination of drugs. The efforts were abandoned after more than an hour. This incident marked the third execution that encountered complications.
Alan Eugene Miller experienced a halted execution as well. Preceding him, Joe Nathan James Jr. endured a prolonged death process, lasting over three hours. The executioner made repeated attempts to locate a vein before reportedly resorting to trying to cut his arm open in a visual search for one.
The flawed execution incidents prompted a temporary suspension in the state until officials conducted a thorough reassessment. It was during this review that the decision was made to use gas as the method for executing inmates.
Following the execution, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office, urged the United States to abolish the death penalty during a briefing in Geneva. She stated that it is not fitting for the 21st century.
She reiterated assertions that Smith displayed contortions and unmistakable signs of distress throughout the procedure. Additionally, she pointed out that Volker Türk, the Human Rights Chief, addressed a letter to authorities in Alabama concerning the execution.
The diplomatic service of the European Union also released a statement regarding the execution, asserting that employing gas as a means of executing individuals is deemed an exceptionally cruel and unusual punishment. The statement urged U.S. states to implement moratoriums on executions and ultimately abolish the practice altogether.