The first-ever execution by nitrogen gas suffocation was carried out Jan. 25 when Kenneth Eugene Smith writhed in pain as he was put to death in Alabama’s Holman prison.
“When they turned the nitrogen on he began to convulse,” Rev. Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual advisor, told CNN. Smith “popped up on the gurney over and over again. He shook the whole gurney.” He gasped, heaved and had saliva or tears in the mask that covered his face, Hood said. It was “the most horrible thing I think I’ve ever seen.” Corrections officers “were very surprised that this didn’t go smoother.”
Smith wore a full-face mask, with plastic tubing running though the death chamber’s concrete wall. His body and arms were strapped to the gurney. Nitrogen suffocation occurs when the gas supplants all oxygen in the body.
“Tonight Alabama caused humanity to take a step backwards,” Smith said in his last words to witnesses. “Thank you for supporting me. Love all of you.”
Spokespeople for Alabama’s attorney general, Steve Marshall, had argued that the procedure would “cause unconsciousness within seconds, and cause death within minutes.”
“There is no doubt what I saw last night, and that’s not what happened,” Hood said. The execution began at 7:53 p.m. and Smith wasn’t declared dead until 32 minutes later.
“What occurred tonight was textbook,” Marshall proclaimed after the execution. “I now suspect many states will follow. Alabama has done it, and so can you.”
Oklahoma and Mississippi have authorized the procedure, and legislatures in Nebraska and Ohio are considering it. Twenty-seven states still have the death penalty. According to Gallup polls, support for capital punishment has plummeted from 80% in 1994 to 53% in 2023.
In November 2022 prison authorities had botched an execution of Smith by lethal injection. They stopped after stabbing him repeatedly with needles in the arms and hands for nearly four hours, and then were unable to set an intravenous line near his heart.
Smith, who was 58, was first convicted of capital murder at the age of 23 and spent the majority of his life on death row. He denied killing Elizabeth Sennett, and the state presented no physical evidence against him. He was convicted of “aiding and abetting the murder.”
Smith’s conviction was overturned on appeal. At his retrial in 1996 he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. But Circuit Court Judge N. Pride Tompkins overruled the jury, sentencing Smith to death.
Sennett’s family happened to be staying at the same hotel as Smith’s. In an expression of working-class solidarity, Steven Tiggleman, Smith’s son, hugged one of Sennett’s sons, Mike. “It’s kind of a bittersweet day. We are not going to be jumping around, whooping and hollering hooray and all that. That’s not us,” Sennett told reporters.
“The death penalty is a weapon in the hands of the capitalist rulers to terrorize and intimidate working people,” Lea Sherman, the Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Congress from New Jersey, told the Militant. “The SWP calls for its abolition.”