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Local News

Gov. Shapiro criticizes Alabama execution of inmate by nitrogen gas

Credit: Stew Milne/Alabama Reflector

Alander Rocha, Alabama Reflector
January 26, 2024

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall Friday said the execution of a death row inmate by nitrogen gas Thursday was “textbook” and suggested other states would follow.

“Alabama has done it, and now so can you,” Marshall said at a press conference hours after Kenneth Eugene Smith was executed in Atmore for the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett.

Media witnesses, including a reporter from Alabama Reflector, reported that Smith convulsed for two minutes, with seven minutes of heavy breathing as he took large breaths.His spiritual advisor, Rev. Jeff Hood, who delivered Smith’s last rites and prayed in the chamber with him, said he “saw all sorts of stuff develop from his mask.”

Supporters of the execution had said prior to Smith’s execution that it would result in a quick and mostly painless death.

The attorney general said Friday the process was “consistent” with what state officials had presented in arguments defending the method in court.

“The [Alabama Department of Corrections] deserve a great deal of thanks and credit for being willing to be the one to step up first in the country to do so,” Marshall said. “And I now suspect that many states will follow as of last night.”

Experts the Reflector interviewed previously were skeptical that the previously untried method would be humane, saying that “this is choking someone to death with a gas.”

Alison Mollman, ACLU of Alabama’s interim legal director, said in a statement that the “execution is tragic for our community, for our state, and for our country.”

“This untested, unproven method of execution is state-sponsored torture. We have learned the execution process caused Mr. Smith to suffer excruciating pain for an extended period. This is cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the Constitution,” the statement said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said in a statement Thursday on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “our justice system is fallible, and the outcome of the death penalty is irreversible,” and reaffirmed a commitment to not approve death warrants.

“Tonight, as we watch a new method of execution take place in our country, I reaffirm that commitment and again say: Our Commonwealth should not be in the business of putting people to death,” the statement said. “Period.”

Pennsylvania has not conducted an execution since 1999.

Marshall could not answer what time an EKG for Smith flatlined. He said that would eventually come from the Department of Corrections (DOC). A message seeking comment was left with DOC on Friday.

The attorney general’s office said Thursday evening that the flow of nitrogen gas began at 7:56 p.m. and that Smith was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m.

Sennett’s husband, the Rev. Charles Sennett, hired Smith, John Forrest Parker and Billy Gray Williams to kill his wife in order to collect insurance money, according to court records. Parker and Smith entered the home where Elizabeth Sennett was killed. All three were convicted of her death. Parker was executed in 2010; Williams, sentenced to life in prison, died in 2020.

Rev. Charles Sennett died by suicide a week after his wife’s death.

Michael Sennett, Elizabeth Sennett’s son, said at a press conference after the execution that “all three of the people involved in this case years ago, we have forgiven them, not today but we have in the past.”

On Friday, Marshall said that “forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive.”

“I hope the family has taken some comfort in the events of last night and knowing that there were men and women in this office who did not back away,” Marshall said.

Smith was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in Sennett’s death in 1989, but the conviction was later overturned. At a subsequent trial in 1996, Smith was again convicted. A jury recommended Smith be sentenced to life in prison. However, the trial judge overruled the jury and imposed the death sentence.

The Alabama Legislature in 2017 abolished the practice, known as judicial override, but did not make it retroactive.

Smith was brought to the death chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in November 2022 for execution by lethal injection. The U.S. Supreme Court gave approval for the execution to proceed about 90 minutes before a death warrant would expire.

The execution was called off after Department of Corrections Department staff failed to establish a second intravenous line necessary for administering the lethal drugs. Smith’s attorneys have said the process, which resulted in multiple puncture wounds, left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Marshall said that 43 other inmates on death row have indicated they preferred execution by nitrogen hypoxia. Marshall said that inmates can choose whether they prefer to be executed by lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia. Most of the choices for the method were made several years ago when the method was first introduced.

“They had the opportunity for that election, and we stand ready to proceed on,” Marshall said.

Alabama Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alabama Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Brian Lyman for questions: info@alabamareflector.com. Follow Alabama Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Alabama Reflector under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.