Written by: Ismael Barrios
STAUNTON, VIRGINIA - In a controversial first for the United States, Alabama has executed Kenneth Smith using nitrogen hypoxia. Smith, convicted in 1988 for his role in a murder-for-hire plot that resulted in the death of Elizabeth Sennett, was pronounced dead last night. The execution marks the culmination of a lengthy legal battle and sparks renewed debate over the ethics of capital punishment. Capital punishment, which Virginia has historically used aggressively, was abolished in the Commonwealth on March 24, 2021. Meanwhile other states, struggling to purchase traditional chemicals necessary for lethal injection, are turning to other potential methods of killing prisoners, just as Alabama did this week.
Smith's involvement in the murder, orchestrated by Elizabeth’s husband, Charles Sennett, who later committed suicide, led to his arrest and subsequent death sentence. His initial execution attempt in 2022 by lethal injection was aborted, leading to the adoption of nitrogen hypoxia, a method that has raised significant ethical and legal questions.
Robin Maher, of the Death Penalty Information Center, and Dr. Joel Zivot have publicly criticized the nitrogen hypoxia method, citing a lack of testing and potential for complications. Despite these concerns, Governor Kay Ivey asserted that the method had been thoroughly vetted.
At 7:53 p.m. CT, Smith was subjected to nitrogen gas for approximately 15 minutes. Witnesses reported convulsions and gasping, sparking immediate concerns over the humanity of the method. Smith's spiritual adviser described the scene as “the most horrible thing” he had witnessed.
In his final statement, Smith expressed concerns about the regression of humanity, a sentiment echoed by his legal team, who highlighted his personal transformation during his time in prison. UN experts and human rights activists have criticized the execution, with some calling for a universal abolition of the death penalty.
The victim’s sons, Mike and Chuck Sennett, witnessed the execution, emphasizing their mother's memory as a “loving, caring woman.” They insisted on Smith's execution as a form of justice, despite expressing forgiveness for all involved.
The use of nitrogen hypoxia, approved in only three states and utilized for the first time in Alabama, has raised legal and ethical questions. The method's adoption during a time of difficulty in procuring lethal injection drugs marks a significant shift in the landscape of capital punishment in the United States.
As the nation grapples with the implications of Smith's execution, the debate over the future of the death penalty and the methods employed continues to intensify.