Late in the evening on January 25, 2024, Alabama executed Kenneth “Kenny” Eugene Smith by nitrogen hypoxia. It was the first known execution using this method.
Kenny was restrained to a gurney with an industrial-grade respirator mask strapped to his face. The valve on the respirator was closed, and pure nitrogen gas was forced into the mask. Without oxygen, Kenny suffocated to death.
Alabama officials touted the method saying it would be the most “humane” way to put someone to death. What witnesses saw was different.
For 22 minutes they reported seeing Kenny writhe, thrash, and jerk against his restraints. They saw him heave within his mask and gasp for breath.
Catholic Mobilizing Network’s Executive Director, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, offered a statement following Kenny’s execution. She said, “Tonight we mourn the deaths of two people whose lives were unfairly taken from them in an act of violence: Elizabeth Sennett and Kenny Smith. How many more executions will it take until we see that returning death for death is not justice — it’s vengeance.”
Alabama’s pursuit of an untested execution method received considerable attention from advocates and media throughout the U.S. and around the world. Vaillancourt Murphy noted, “People from all over the globe are watching Alabama tonight. Regretfully, what they saw was an act of barbarism.
Kenny and two co-defendants were convicted in the murder-for-hire of a 45-year-old woman, Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett; her husband had paid to have her killed. Kenny and one other defendant were sentenced to death. The third defendant was sentenced to life in prison.
Kenny’s initial conviction was overturned by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. In his second trial, the jury recommended 11-1 that Kenny receive a life sentence without the possibility of parole. But the judge overrode this verdict and sentenced Kenny to death, once again.
Alabama has since amended its sentencing laws to say that the jury, not the judge, makes the final decision on sentencing in a capital trial. If Kenny’s trial occurred today and reached the same verdict, he would not be eligible for the death penalty. However, this new law is not retroactive.
Kenny survived an execution attempt by the state of Alabama in 2022. After corrections officials spent hours working unsuccessfully to set an intravenous line for his lethal injection, the state called off Kenny’s execution just before his death warrant expired. His was the third of three problematic executions in a row in 2022.
Following Kenny’s botched 2022 execution, Alabama enacted a new law which allows the governor to set a 30-hour time window for executions. This policy was put in place to allow the state more time to conduct an execution when things go wrong — as they have many times before.