First death row inmate executed by nitrogen gas suffered ‘horrific’ death

Kenneth Eugene Smith was executed by Nitrogen gas (Picture: EPA / REX)

A witness to the first ever US prisoner to be executed by ‘painless’ nitrogen gas says Kenneth Eugene Smith writhed in agony as he suffered a ‘horrific’ death.

Killer-for-hire Smith, 58, was fitted with a gas mask which was pumped full of 100% nitrogen gas at the execution chamber at the William C. Holman prison in Atmore, Alabama.

State authorities had predicted unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes.

But instead Smith took 22 minutes to die, convulsing in his chair and tugging against his restraints for several minutes before losing consciousness.

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At one point as the killer thrashed against his restraints, his wife Deanna, wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Never Alone’, reportedly cried out for him from the witness box.

Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 for a murder-for-hire killing of a preacher’s wife in 1988, which he was paid just $1000 to commit. 

As he spoke his final words, delivered through the gas mask on his face, Smith made a heart sign with his left hand to his family before declaring: ‘Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards… I’m leaving with love, peace and light.’

Jeff Hood, who acted as Smith’s spiritual guide throughout the ordeal, said the execution was the worst thing he’d ever witnessed.

‘When they turned the nitrogen on, he began to convulse, he popped up on the gurney over and over again, he shook the whole gurney,’ he said. 

Hood was one of the few people to witness the historic execution, and described how Smith was fitted with what looked like a ‘firefighter’s mask’ during the procedure.

After praying for the murderer and telling him that he ‘loved him and he wasn’t alone’, Hood broke down as he recalled the ‘horror show’ of Smith’s final moments. 

Kenneth Eugene Smith was sentenced to death for killing a preacher’s wife for $1000 (Picture: REX)

‘I could see the corrections officers, I think they were very surprised that this didn’t go smoothly – one of the state officials in the room was so nervous she was tap dancing,’ he continued. 

‘(Smith) kept breathing for what could possibly be up to nine minutes, ten minutes, unbelievable evil was unleashed tonight in Alabama.’

Of the five executions Hood had previously witnessed, he said this was easily the worst one.

His words contradict those of the Alabama State Department, who had praised the new method as an ‘effective and humane method of execution.’

The untested method had previously been labelled as ‘torture’ by the UN.

Speaking at a press conference alongside Smith’s wife Deanna, Hood said the execution lasted far longer than anticipated, detailing that ‘what we saw was minutes of someone struggling for his life.’

‘Kenny Smith was by no means a perfect person,’ he conceded. ‘But we have to make sure that this never, ever happens again.’

Reverend Jeff Hood witnessed the execution and said it was ‘one of the worst things’ he’d ever seen

In a statement, Alabama state governor Kay Ivey said: ‘On March 18, 1988, 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett’s life was brutally taken from her by Kenneth Eugene Smith.

‘After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes.

‘I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss.’

Smith’s execution comes after he survived a botched lethal injection in 2022 when officials tried unsuccessfully for hours to put an intravenous line into his body.

The incident helped prompt a review of the state’s death penalty procedures.

In a 6-3 decision, the US Supreme Court declined to uphold Smith’s legal challenge that claimed a second execution attempt – after the first failure caused him severe trauma – would violate the US Constitution’s 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

‘Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its “guinea pig” to test a method of execution never attempted before,’ Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, saying she would have granted the injunction.

Anti-death penalty activists protested the Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama ahead of the execution (Picture: AP)

‘The world is watching.’

Reprieve, a human rights organisation focused on incarceration, said Smith’s incarceration was a tragedy.

Maya Foe, the organisation’s director, said: ‘They said lethal injection was humane- that was a lie. They’ll claim this execution was humane, and that is a lie, too.

‘The whole purpose of these methods is to hide pain. How many more prisoners must die agonizing deaths before we see executions for what they really are: the state violently taking a human life?’

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