By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Kenneth Eugene Smith, who survived a 2022 attempt by state corrections officials to execute him by lethal injection, became the nation’s first condemned inmate to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia when he was put to death last Thursday, January 25.
Smith, sentenced to death for the 1988 capital murder of a Colbert County woman, escaped his date with death when prison doctors at William C. Holman Correctional Facility were unsuccessful in finding a vein in which to insert the needles that were to deliver the lethal injection.
The new method was apparently successful, as no problems developed to stop last week’s execution. Smith was officially pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m.
According to a report published by al.com, witnesses to the execution said Smith “struggled” as the gas began flowing into the mask covering his face. According to the report, Smith “began writhing and thrashing” and continued for “about two to four minutes, followed by around five minutes of heavy breathing.”
Gov. Kay Ivey said after the execution that Smith, who at first demanded to be put to death by the new method then tried to have it stopped, got what he asked for.
“On March 18, 1988, 45-year-old Elizabeth (Dorlene) Sennett’s life was brutally taken from her by Kenneth Eugene Smith,” Ivey told reporters. “After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes.
“The execution was lawfully carried out by nitrogen hypoxia, the method previously requested by Mr. Smith as an alternative to lethal injection. At long last, Mr. Smith got what he asked for, and this case can finally be put to rest.”
According to court documents, Smith was 22 years old when Charles Sennett, a Colbert County preacher, paid him and two others $1,000 each to kill Sennett’s wife so he could collect on her life insurance policy. The trio stabbed and beat her to death inside her home.
Her husband committed suicide, and one of the other men convicted in the slaying was executed in 2010. Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 by a judge who over-rode a jury’s recommendation that he serve life in prison.
The condemned man’s lawyers argued that death by nitrogen hypoxia was cruel and unusual punishment, but a federal appeals court ruled the day before the execution that “the fact that nitrogen hypoxia is ‘new and novel’ does not mean it is inherently cruel and unusual.”
In 2018 Alabama became the third state to approve use of the new method of executions after a shortage of the necessary drugs made lethal injection increasingly difficult. Nitrogen hypoxia has also been approved for use in Oklahoma and Mississippi, but neither state has yet used it.