What happened to Kenneth Smith? | The first death row inmate to be executed by nitrogen gas

Kenneth Smith

What happened to Kenneth Smith? 

In 2024, Kenneth Smith became the first death row prisoner to be executed in America using nitrogen gas. The procedure was untested, which led Smith’s lawyers to argue it amounted to a form of cruel and unusual punishment that was banned under the U.S. Constitution.

Kenneth Smith was pronounced dead at 8.25 pm on the 25th of January 2024 in an Alabama prison after breathing pure nitrogen gas through a face mask, which caused oxygen deprivation. The execution took around 22 minutes.

Smith had previously been subjected to an execution procedure in November 2022, when he was strapped to a gurney for 4 hours when they punctured his arms and legs in a failed attempt to find a vein to kill him using lethal drugs.

What crime did Kenneth Smith commit? 

Smith was convicted of the murder for hire of a pastor’s wife called Elizabeth Sennett in 1988. He and another man, John Forrest Parker, were paid $1,000 to kill her by her husband, Charles Sennett, who was a minister in the Church of Christ. He then went on to take his own life after he was suspected of the crime. Sennett was stabbed 8 times with wounds to the chest and in each side of her neck.

John Forrest Parker was executed in 2010. Parker had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court leading up to his execution, but it was rejected. In the appeal, Parker’s lawyers argued the constitutionality of an Alabama law that allowed the trial judge to override the jury’s recommendation that Parker should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole rather than be given the death sentence. 

How does nitrogen gas execution work and why are they using it? 

Nitrogen hypoxia execution causes death by forcing the inmate to breathe pure nitrogen, which deprives them of the oxygen that is needed to maintain bodily functions.

No state had used nitrogen hypoxia to carry out a death sentence before Kenneth Smith was executed in this way in January 2024. In 2018, Alabama became the third state, joining Oklahoma and Mississippi in authorising the use of nitrogen gas to execute prisoners. Some states are looking for different ways to execute inmates because the drugs used in lethal injections are becoming increasingly difficult to get hold of. 

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