Commentary: Death penalty persists despite proven cruelty and injustice

This column appears every other week in Foster’s Daily Democrat and the Tuskegee News. This week, Guy Trammell, an African American man from Tuskegee, Ala., and Amy Miller, a white woman from South Berwick, Maine, write about the death penalty and a recent Alabama execution.

By Guy Trammell

Of the 31 states permitting execution, Alabama began issuing what would become the most death sentences in 1812, when Eli Norman was hung for murder. In 1927, electrocution replaced hanging. About two-thirds of Alabama’s executions happened since 2002, when lethal injection became the primary method.

Eighty percent of Alabama’s 146 death row inmates either didn’t get a majority jury decision, or a judge overruled the jury - which occurred mainly during election years. Juries had given life sentences to 11 of the 72 people executed since 1983. Those executed were 56% white and 44% Black, despite Blacks being about 20% of Alabama’s population.

Guy Trammell Jr. and Amy Miller
Guy Trammell Jr. and Amy Miller

In November 2022, Gov. Kay Ivey halted all executions after three consecutive botched attempts to find a vein for lethal injections. In one case, Joe Nathan James received extensive cuts and punctures during his three-hour 2022 execution, the longest in United States history. Ivey insisted the state didn’t fail, but that “legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.”

In 2011, Jason Williams was executed with a secret combination of illegally purchased drugs after the federal Drug Enforcement Administration had seized Alabama’s illegal supply of sodium thiopental, used for lethal injection. In 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit required that Alabama reveal to the public the components of its lethal injection formula.

In 1989, Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire death of Elizabeth Sennett. In his 1996 appeal, 11 of 12 jurors voted for life in prison but an Alabama judge ruled for execution, citing a law allowing judges to override jury decisions on a death sentence. In 2016, that law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Alabama was the last state to abolish the law.) Smith’s 2022 lethal injection was stayed after executioners exeeded the legal time limit to hook him up for a lethal injection.

In executing Smith on Jan. 25, 2024, Alabama became the first state to deliver death by nitrogen hypoxia. In 2020, the American Veterinary Association advised against using nitrogen for euthanasia in mammals because of pain, panic and severe physical distress, while state attorneys assured courts it produces “unconsciousness in seconds.”

However, witnesses reported that on Jan. 25 Smith appeared awake and “shook and writhed” from 7:53 p.m. until 8:25 p.m. Prison officials were visibly shaken. A witness to four previous Alabama executions said, “I have never seen such a violent reaction to an execution.”

In 2018, Governor Ivey, concerned about the lack of lethal injection drug supplies, signed legislation allowing executions by nitrogen hypoxia. The United Nations warned that use of nitrogen hypoxia might amount to torture. In 2023, Alabama announced the near completion of a nitrogen hypoxia death chamber without providing details, nor any information about how these executions worked.(…wait…why am I getting thoughts of the Nuremburg trials??...)

- Blaming others for lethal injection mutilations and suffering while searching for a vein!- Overruling and ignoring juries so judges can increase their executions record for reelection!- Ignoring human rights in order to KILL people! It’s really time to focus on what is going on!!

By Amy Miller

It’s the little things that get me.

Kenneth Smith held his breath as long as he could, trying to get every last minute of life on Jan. 25 before he died after the state of Alabama replaced oxygen with nitrogen in the air he was allowed to breath.

Phillip Hancock asked for Kentucky Fried chicken - dark meat - for his last meal before being killed by lethal injection, but the officials in Oklahoma in November mistakenly, I guess, brought him light meat instead.

I’m surprised anyone wants to eat at all when facing imminent death. I am heartened, but pained, by Smith’s desperate desire to hold onto life. I am less surprised that, despite rumors of everyone turning to God in the foxhole, Smith apparently gave up on such an all-loving, all-knowing being in the face of his execution.

I have talked about this before. You can’t know what you will feel till you are there. Whether “there” means being on death row or whether it means suffering the loss of a loved one to murder.

I take it as truth that if my loved one had been murdered by Smith or Hancock or any of the other 8,500 people who have been on death row in the United States since the 1970s, my feelings about whether they should live or die would be far more emotional. But this is why we have laws, judges and juries.

What astonishes me is that decent people carry out these executions. I know it is possible. I just don’t understand how they can sleep at night.

What truly astounds me is that most Americans favor the death penalty in at least some cases.

This, despite the fact that more Blacks than whites are executed, a statistic that does not reflect the ratio of murders committed, let alone the population.

This, despite the dozens of people who have been exonerated after being on death row and in some cases executed. A stunning 82% of retried death row inmates turned out not to have committed crimes that legally called for the death penalty and 7% were not guilty at all.

This, despite that only 55 countries worldwide and almost none in the West have capital punishment.

This, despite that the United States is in the top five countries when it came to the capital punishments, joining the ranks of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

This, despite the number of botched executions – in 2022, seven out of 22 executions went wrong.

This, despite biblical commandment “thou shalt not kill.”

This, despite the fact that death penalty appeals cost taxpayers many times that of imprisoning someone for life.

And despite the fact that executing a murderer will never bring anyone back to life, more than half of Americans think we should knowingly, willingly kill someone – someone who may turn out to be innocent - rather than imprison them for life.Amy and Guy can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Commentary: Death penalty persists despite proven cruelty, injustice