Nitrogen gas execution: Kenneth Smith convulses for four minutes in Alabama death chamber

ATMORE − Kenneth Eugene Smith appeared to convulse and shake vigorously for about four minutes after the nitrogen gas apparently began flowing through his full-face mask in Alabama's death chamber. It was another two to three minutes before he appeared to lose consciousness, all while gasping for air to the extent that the gurney shook several times.

Smith was declared dead at 8:25 p.m. Thursday, and Alabama had become the first state to use nitrogen gas to execute a human.

The execution took place in the death house at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore more than three decades after he was convicted of killing Elizabeth Sennett in a murder-for-hire scheme.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, sentenced for murder on Nov. 14, 1989.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, sentenced for murder on Nov. 14, 1989.

Here's how the execution played out:

7:53 p.m.

Drapes were open in the media witness room. Smith had four witnesses in the room. Smith was wearing a full face mask with a plastic tube running out of a rectangular hole in the concrete block wall of the death chamber connected to the mask. He was strapped to the gurney cruciform, with his arms secured by straps. His body was secured by straps. He raised his head to look into the witness room and appeared to recognize the witnesses who were there for him. He smiled through the mask and made the sign language sign for "I love you" and the OK sign with his left hand. He worked the fingers of his left hand as if counting.

7:55 p.m.

He was given the opportunity to make a statement. His words were difficult to hear, muffled by the mask. "Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step backward," he said. He continued to speak but the words were inaudible. He thanked those who supported him through this process and his previous execution attempt. "I love all of you," he said as he ended his statement. "Thank you for supporting me. I love all of you."

7:56 p.m.

The Rev. Jeff Hood, holding a Bible, approached Smith and they appeared to pray.

7:57 p.m.

A prisons staff member inside the death chamber approached Smith and checked the seal of the mask. The nitrogen apparently began flowing.

7:57 to 8:01 p.m.

Smith writhed and convulsed on the gurney. He appeared to be fully conscious when the gas began to flow. He took deep breaths, his body shaking violently with his eyes rolling in the back of his head. Hood, standing about 15 feet away, made the sign of the cross several times. Smith clenched his fists, his legs shook under the tightly tucked-in white sheet that covered him from his neck down. He seemed to be gasping for air. The gurney shook several times during this time. Hood removed his eyeglasses and wiped away tears.

8:02 p.m.

Smith appeared to lose consciousness. His chest remained still for about 20 seconds then he took several large gasps for air. There appeared to be saliva or tears on the inside of the facemask. A female witness for Smith sobbed.

8:06 p.m.

Smith's gasping appeared to slow down.

8:07 p.m.

Smith appeared to take his last breath.

8:15 p.m.

The curtains to the witness room were closed.

In a news conference following the execution, Department of Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm said Smith's reactions were "...nothing out of the ordinary."

"It appeared Smith held his breath for as long as he could, and struggled against his restraints," Hamm said. "This was expected."

Hamm said the nitrogen flowed to Smith's mask for about 15 minutes.

Five media witnesses were in the room and were taken to the prison from the media center about 4 miles away at 6:58 p.m. They remained in a trailer outside the death house until about 7:47 p.m., when they were escorted in. The delay was caused by difficulties in hooking up the EKG monitors to Smith, Hamm said. He said Smith did not struggle with prison system staff as they were attempting to attach the EKG monitors to him.

Hood and two prison system staff members stood in the death chamber, about 15 feet away from Smith. They did not wear masks.

In a change from previous executions using lethal injection as the method, a staff member did not approach Smith and check his level of consciousness when it appeared he had stopped breathing. In the past a staff member bent down and spoke loudly into the inmate's ear, saying "Boss! Boss!", then raked his thumb across the inmate's eyelid.

Smith's death warrant ran for 30 hours, from midnight Thursday until 6 a.m. Friday. That 30-hour window was put in place after the state's first unsuccessful attempt to kill Smith.

In 2022, Smith was strapped to the gurney to be executed by lethal injection but prison officials could not gain access to his veins for the two IV lines before the death warrant expired and the execution process was halted. At that time the warrant covered 24 hours. Smith’s lawyers say he was subjected to pain and suffering as staff attempted to place the lines.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the execution in a decision delivered Thursday evening, with the court's three liberal justices dissenting. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted Alabama's failure to execute Smith in 2022, concerns about the state's "hazy" protocol for its new procedure and the risk of protecting inmates from cruel and unusual punishment. "This case shows how that protection can be all too fragile," she wrote.

Rev. Lynn Hopkins and others watch a virtual vigil on Zoom from the capitol steps in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday evening January 25, 2024 as they wait to hear news of the planned execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith.People from around the state and world joined the virtual vigil.
Rev. Lynn Hopkins and others watch a virtual vigil on Zoom from the capitol steps in Montgomery, Ala., on Thursday evening January 25, 2024 as they wait to hear news of the planned execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith.People from around the state and world joined the virtual vigil.

Gov. Kay Ivey confirmed the time of death in a statement emailed to media about three minutes later.

"After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes," Ivey said. “The execution was lawfully carried out by nitrogen hypoxia, the method previously requested by Mr. Smith as an alternative to lethal injection."

Until the execution of Smith, 58, nitrogen hypoxia was previously an untried method on humans, and the state's plans to use the gas drew national and international scorn and outrage.

The defense argued that the new method of execution could subject Smith to cruel and unusual punishment, which is barred by the U.S. Constitution.

More: Faith leaders speak out against Alabama's first nitrogen gas execution

In a heavily redacted court document, the state described the steps it planned to use. The document said the state would place a mask over Smith's face, then run nitrogen gas through the mask to displace the oxygen for 15 minutes, or five minutes after his heart has stopped. Nitrogen is odorless and tasteless and makes up 78% of the air we breathe.

The ADOC had not commented on whether Smith was sedated before the nitrogen gas was administered. In lethal injection executions, the condemned is sedated before the compound that stops their hearts is administered.

Opponents of the method call it experimental. The American Veterinary Medical Association disallows the use of nitrogen hypoxia as a form of euthanasia for mammals, other that pigs, because it causes an “anoxic environment that is distressing for some species.”

The crime

Smith was convicted of capital murder on Nov, 14, 1989, in the murder-for-hire plot of Elizabeth Sennett in Colbert County, She was the wife of the Rev. Charles Sennett, who hired Smith and his co-defendant to kill her in an effort to collect on her life insurance policy.

Charles Sennett was in debt at the time. Elizabeth Sennett was stabbed to death in her home. Charles Sennett committed suicide a few days after her death after it became apparent that investigators suspected his involvement.

Smith’s original conviction was overturned, and he was convicted of capital murder again in 1996.

The jury voted 11-1 to recommend a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for Smith, but the judge ignored the jury’s recommendation and handed down the death sentence. At the time, judges in Alabama could override the jury’s recommendation of life without the possibility of parole and enact the death sentence. The Legislature has since removed that power.

His co-defendant in the case, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Marty Roney at

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Four minutes of convulsions: Kenneth Smith executed with nitrogen gas