Alabama to become first state to execute inmate with nitrogen gas after lethal injection attempt fails

Alabama will become the first state in the nation to execute an inmate using nitrogen gas after he failed to be administered a lethal injection last year.

Back in 1988, Kenneth Eugene Smith, now 58, was hired alongside John Forest Parker to murder Elizabeth Sennett, the wife of a north Alabama preacher, and make her death look like a robbery gone wrong. The woman’s husband, Charles Sennett Sr., had been having an affair and was also in deep debt.

Charles Sennett initially asked one man to commit the heinous crime, and that man then hired Smith and Parker. Smith and Parker then went to the woman’s home under the pretext of hunting on her property. – Elizabeth called her husband and verified that the men had obtained her permission first – and after asking to use the couple’s bathroom, they fatally attacked Elizabeth. She is believed to have been beaten and stabbed in the neck. Smith and Parker each received between $900 and $1,000 for the deed.

Within days of Elizabeth Sennett’s violent death, Pastor Sennett took out a substantial insurance policy for her. He later committed suicide after police tracked him down as a suspect in her death. Parker, Smith’s accomplice in the murder, was executed by lethal injection in 2010. It is unclear if the fourth man involved in the murder-for-hire plot was ever charged.

In 1996, Smith was convicted of Elizabeth’s murder. The jury then voted 11 to 1 in favor of life in prison, but the judge in the case overturned the jury’s ruling and sentenced Smith to death.

That sentence was scheduled to be administered last November. On the date of his execution, Smith lay on the gurney, awaiting lethal injection. However, officials were unable to connect Smith to the two necessary intravenous lines before the court-set deadline expired, and the Department of Corrections canceled the execution.

However, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall did not let Smith’s case go unnoticed, and his office filed motions in August for a new execution date. Marshall recently claimed in a statement that Elizabeth Sennett’s family had “waited an inordinate 35 years for justice.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) announced that Smith’s execution had been rescheduled for sometime between Jan. 25 and 6 a.m. Jan. 26, 2024. Her office also announced that Smith would be executed by a different method: nitrogen hypoxia.

While nitrogen makes up 78% of the air humans normally breathe, that air is also mixed with oxygen. During an execution for nitrogen hypoxia, a tube was tied to the inmate’s nose and mouth. At the beginning of the execution, the gas filtered through the tube converted only to nitrogen, without oxygen, causing the inmate to die of asphyxiation. The process is expected to take between five and 15 minutes, depending on the state’s execution protocol.

Ivey’s announcement added that Smith and his legal team had been the ones to offer nitrogen hypoxia “as an alternative to lethal injection,” but a lawsuit and recent statements by Smith’s attorneys appear to contradict that claim. His lawyers have called nitrogen hypoxia “experimental,” stating that his protocol “has never been fully disclosed to [Smith] or his attorney,” and insisted that they do not want to make Smith a “test subject.”

“Like the eleven jurors who did not believe Mr. Smith should be executed, we are hopeful that those who review this case will see that a second attempt to execute Mr. Smith… is unwarranted and unjust,” attorney Robert Grass wrote in a statement.

The state Supreme Court already ruled 6-2 earlier this month to approve the new method of execution in Smith’s case. Governor Ivey has the power to grant clemency to Smith, but she has already stated that she has no intention of doing so.

If Smith’s execution goes as planned, he will become the first person in American history to be executed for nitrogen hypoxia. Mississippi and Oklahoma also approved nitrogen hypoxia for state-sponsored executions, but did not use it.

In 2017, the state of Alabama abolished judicial annulment in cases of capital crimes. However, since that new statute could not be applied retroactively, it did not affect Smith.

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