Questions Surround Execution of Kenneth Smith


Kenneth Smith was pronounced dead at 8:25 pm tonight after the State of Alabama executed him using nitrogen suffocation, an experimental method that had never previously been used in an execution.

Before Kenny Smith’s execution, Alabama officials assured the courts and the public that, if nitrogen gas was administered properly, Kenny Smith would lose consciousness “almost immediately.” They asserted that Mr. Smith would experience no pain and would die within a few minutes.

But that is not what happened.

Mr. Smith did not die within minutes as the State promised. The execution began at 7:53 pm but Mr. Smith was not pronounced dead until 8:25 pm.

Alabama officials have said they do not know when the nitrogen gas started to flow into the mask that completely covered Mr. Smith’s face. But witnesses said that at 7:57 pm, he began writhing in pain and his body started “thrashing against the straps” binding him to the gurney, “his whole body and head violently jerking back and forth for several minutes,” followed by “heaving and retching inside the mask.”

Mr. Smith clenched his fists and his legs shook. As Mr. Smith gasped for air, his body lifted against the restraints. Witnesses observed fluid inside of the mask. What witnesses observed last night are clear signs of distress and suffering.

“Until the State of Alabama can detail why the execution process did not go as planned, and until it can establish that the apparent pain and suffering Mr. Smith experienced last night will not occur in the future, no one else in Alabama should be subjected to this ongoing experiment,” EJI Deputy Director Randy Susskind said.

“For state officials to suggest that they are worthy of praise for the way Mr. Smith was executed last night indicates an indifference to our constitutional principles and values, and raises serious questions about whether the State of Alabama should be allowed to subject anyone else to nitrogen suffocation.”

For the last 14 months, the State of Alabama subjected Kenny Smith to the trauma of facing a second execution date, making him the only person in 75 years—and only the second in U.S. history—to suffer a second execution after a previous failed attempt.

The State of Alabama told Mr. Smith for weeks that he was going to die on November 17, 2022.

On that date, Mr. Smith was given his last meal and last words, strapped to a gurney for over an hour and tortured as prison staff jabbed him with needles, penetrating his muscles and causing severe pain, and then attempted a central line procedure.

Throughout this hours-long process, Mr. Smith was terrified and writhing in agony. Just before midnight, the execution team suddenly stopped sticking him with needles and returned him to his cell.

Mr. Smith thought that every minute during that horrific night would be his last. In several important respects, Mr. Smith experienced what was effectively a “mock execution” that resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mr. Smith’s nightmares, nausea, and other trauma symptoms were exacerbated when the State announced it would put him through this ordeal a second time—but using a completely experimental and terrifying method that would force him to breathe nitrogen gas until he suffocated to death.

Alabama not only proceeded with a new nitrogen gas protocol that had never been tested and despite real doubts about its constitutionality, but it compounded its cruelty when, as Circuit Judge Jill Pryor wrote in her dissent from the Eleventh Circuit’s order denying a stay of execution, it specifically “chose[] this condemned person, this protocol, and this moment.”

“[E]ven though Mr. Smith is suffering mentally and physically from the posttraumatic stress Alabama caused when it botched its first attempt to execute him in 2022,” she wrote, the State of Alabama decided that Mr. Smith would be “escorted by his executioners to the same execution chamber that was previously used for the first attempted execution” and “strapped to a gurney, the same one that held him for hours as he endured excruciating pain just over a year ago.”

While Mr. Smith did not survive to report what pain he experienced this time, there is an undeniable record of the agonizing terror he suffered over the last year.

And as Mr. Smith’s first failed execution attempt—one of four executions that Alabama botched in four years—amply demonstrates, a single “successful” execution by nitrogen suffocation provides no basis for believing that Alabama can reliably carry out another.