Kenneth Eugene Smith, a 58-year-old murderer in Alabama, became the first person in the US to be executed with nitrogen gas, a controversial method that has been condemned by the White House and the UN.
Smith’s spiritual advisor, Reverend Jeff Hood, who was allowed in the chamber to give the convict his last rites before his mask was strapped down on his face for his execution, said he looked “like a fish out of water”, NBC News reported.
Hood, who participated in numerous executions last year, said he never expected to see Smith “heaving up and down on the gurney”. He said contrary to authorities saying the convict would die instantly, the reverend asserted that such a scenario never happened.
“I mean, it really was like watching someone put a plastic bag over someone’s head and just to see what happens, and holding it as tight as they can, as long as they can, to watch the person resist and shake,” Hood was quoted as saying by NBC News.
“They repeatedly said that he would not be able to resist the nitrogen, and would be unconscious within seconds. And then he looks like a fish out of water,” he said.
A journalist, who was at the WC Holman Correctional Facility where Smith was executed, said he never saw a “violent execution” in his life.
“We saw him begin violently shaking, thrashing against the straps that held him down. This was the fifth execution that I’ve witnessed in Alabama, and I’ve never seen such a violent execution or a violent reaction to the means of execution,” Lee Hedgepeth, an Alabama reporter, told MSNBC.
He said that Smith had dry-heaved into the mask, NBC News reported.
On Thursday, Smith, a convict for a murder-for-hire, was put to death in Alabama in the first execution using asphyxiation by nitrogen gas.
Alabama state officials called its new method for capital punishment “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man”.
Smith, who was convicted for a murder-for-hire committed in 1988, had survived the state’s previous attempt to put him to death by lethal injection in 2022, when authorities were unable to connect the intravenous lines to his veins.
Smith’s lawyers had sought to prevent the execution by nitrogen, saying the method was risky, experimental and could lead to a torturous death or non-fatal injuries.
The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has developed a protocol for nitrogen hypoxia, which involves strapping the inmate to a gurney, fitting them with a mask and a breathing tube, and replacing breathable air with pure nitrogen.
The US Supreme Court on Wednesday (local time) also refused to stop Smith’s execution by nitrogen gas in a last-minute appeal filed by his lawyers.
In 1988, Smith was convicted in the murder of Elizabeth Sennett after he and an accomplice were hired by Charles Sennett, her husband and a pastor, who took out a large insurance policy on his wife, prosecutors said. Elizabeth Sennett was repeatedly stabbed and beaten with a blunt object.
Later, Charles Sennett committed suicide. Smith’s accomplice was also convicted and sentenced to death. His execution was done in 2010.
CONDEMNATION BY WHITE HOUSE, UN
The White House on Friday (local time) said it was “deeply troubled” by the nitrogen gas execution of Smith, saying “it was troubling for us”.
“The use of nitrogen gas — it is troubling to us. We are deeply troubled by it,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
UN human rights experts said the execution by nitrogen gas “will likely violate the prohibition on torture”. UN human rights chief Volker Turk, called Smith’s execution “cruel” and “inhuman”.
“This novel and untested method of suffocation by nitrogen gas may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Turk said.