And here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
– Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”
The first time the State of Alabama tried to kill Kenneth Eugene Smith, he was strapped to the death gurney for four agonizing hours, while lawyers for the state scrambled to convince the US Supreme Court to overturn a federal appeals court injunction that had halted the planned execution earlier in the day on the grounds that Alabama’s method of execution might violate Smith’s rights against cruel and unusual punishment.
Given Alabama’s disgraceful record of botched and failed executions, it looked like Smith’s lawyers had an almost unimpeachable case. Consider these facts: In July of 2022, Alabama administered what is likely one of the longest and most bizarre executions in US history, when the prison “execution team” spent three and a half hours trying to kill Joe Nathan James Jr, by repeatedly jabbing him with needles to find a vein that would hold the IV line, through which a lethal cocktail of drugs would flow.
This was the execution where Alabama prison officials pulled over two women reporters, Ivana Hrynkiw of AL.com and Kim Chandler of the Associated Press, for full-body inspections, where the length of their clothing was measured. Hrynkiw was told that her skirt was too short for such a solemn occasion. Hrynkiw protested but finally borrowed a pair of fly-fishing wading boots to fully cover her legs. Then she was stopped again and told that the open heals of the boots also violated the death chamber dress code. She wasn’t allowed to enter the van that would take her to the execution site until she put on a pair of tennis shoes. Then all of the reporters were left locked in the prison van for more than two hours with no explanation.
By the time, Hrynkiw and Chandler were let into the execution chamber, three hours after the scheduled time of 6PM, James was unconscious and strapped to the death gurney with an IV line sunk in his left arm.
James had been convicted twice for the 1994 murder of his former girlfriend, Faith Hall. The first conviction was overturned for prosecutorial misconduct. He was retried and convicted a second time and sentenced to death, over the objections of Hall’s three children. On the night of the execution, two of Hall’s daughters attended, hoping to hear James speak some words of remorse. Instead, they saw he was unresponsive and asked to leave. ADOC officials told the Hall family that could not leave the chamber until the execution was complete. The poison began to pump into James’s veins at 9:04 PM. He wasn’t pronounced dead until 9:27, nearly three-and-a-half hours after the scheduled time of his execution.
A private autopsy funded by Reprieve USA was performed on James’ body. The examination found numerous puncture wounds and bruising around James’ knuckles and wrists, where the executioners had repeatedly attempted and failed to insert an IV. The doctors documented bleeding and bruising on both of James’s wrists, likely from the prolonged time he spent strapped to the death gurney. There were punctures in his arm muscles not near any vein that were the likely sites of multiple injections of sedatives. The autopsy also disclosed a deep jagged incision on his left arm, which the doctors determined was a “cutdown,” where the skin is sliced down to the vein–an extremely painful procedure without anesthesia.
Four years earlier, the same Alabama prison similarly botched the failed execution of Doyle Lee Hamm, a death row inmate suffering from advanced lymphatic cancer and carcinoma. The Alabama execution team ignored repeated warnings from Hamm’s defense lawyers that it would be impossible to find a vein in which to insert the catheter and went forward with the execution anyway. For two-and-a-half hours, the executioners jabbed at different parts of Hamm’s body to find a vein. Hamm was left with as many as twelve puncture wounds, including six in his groin and another that pierced his bladder and punctured his femoral artery. Having failed to kill Hamm by the midnight deadline, the execution was called off. Afterward, Jeff Dunn, Alabama’s Corrections Commissioner, chillingly told reporters, “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” On November 28, 2021, Hamm died in prison from his illnesses.
Then, less than two months after the torturous execution of Joe Nathan James, Alabama tried and failed to kill Alan Eugene Miller by lethal injection. Ironically, Miller claimed that he had designated nitrogen hypoxia as his preferred method of execution. (Alabama had authorized the gas in 2018 as an alternative to lethal injection.). But Alabama Department of Corrections personnel apparently lost his designation form. After a series of court challenges, the US Supreme Court issued a last-minute 5-4 ruling approving Miller’s execution by lethal injection. The late-arriving decision left the execution team only 2½ hours to carry out the killing before the warrant expired. But once again the Alabama execution team tried and failed for 90 minutes to insert the IV catheter into Miller’s veins before the commissioner called off the execution. Miller was punctured 18 times. On November 28, 2022, the State of Alabama agreed that it would no longer attempt to execute Miller by lethal injection and that in any future attempt to kill him it would use nitrogen hypoxia.
But the atrocious examples of these cases failed to persuade the kill-happy US Supreme Court, which swiftly overturned the appeals court injunction in a 6-3 decision allowing the execution of Kenneth Smith to proceed with due haste. With the death clock ticking and Smith still strapped to the kill table, the state’s execution team poked and jabbed him with needles for 90 minutes, searching futilely for a vein that would hold the IV catheter. Smith was repeatedly stuck in his hands and arms, “well past the point,” his attorney asserted, “at which the executioners should have known that it was not reasonably possible to access a vein.”
In an interview with NPR, Smith described what it was like to undergo a mangled execution attempt: “I was strapped down, couldn’t catch my breath,” Smith recalled. “I was shaking like a leaf. I was absolutely alone in a room full of people, and not one of them tried to help me at all, and I was crying out for help. It was a month or so before I really started to come back to myself.”
Now Alabama wants to try to kill Smith again, this time by saturating his lungs with nitrogen gas. If the execution goes forward as scheduled on January 25, it will be the first time nitrogen gas will be used to squeeze the life out of someone in an American death chamber, though it may well have been a method used by the Nazis. So another grisly first for our exceptional nation.
Smith, who has been on death row for three decades, was convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett and sentenced to death by a jury in 1989. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1992. After a retrial in 1996, Smith was once again convicted on charges that Sennett’s preacher husband had paid him to kill her. This time, however, the jury voted 11-1 to recommend a life sentence, but the trial judge overrode the recommendation and sentenced Smith to death. Even though Alabama ended the practice of permitting judges to override jury verdicts to impose death sentences in 2017, the bill contained a lethal loophole prohibiting the retroactive application to cases where the death sentences had been ordered before 2017. In other words, the egregious examples of judicial overreach that led to the passage of the law were rendered immune from the reforms of the law itself. Don’t look for logic here, there is none, beyond a thanatic political belief that Death must be served or votes will be lost.
After the first bungled attempt to kill Kenneth Smith, when Smith pleaded for help, as he later described it, while his would-be killers stabbed him repeatedly in “the same hole like a freaking sewing machine,” Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, issued a moratorium on executions to investigate these death room debacles. But the review was assigned by the very agency that had just botched four executions: the state’s Department of Corrections, an entity the journalist Elizabeth Breunig described as “unqualified for the task in a most dramatic way.”
Ivey defended her decision by growling: “I don’t buy for a second the narrative being pushed by activists that these issues are the fault of the folks at Corrections or anyone in law enforcement, for that matter. I believe that legal tactics and criminals hijacking the system are at play here.” And, of course, the ADOC quickly exonerated itself of any malfeasance or incompetence and concluded that they were prepared to resume operational control of the state’s death machine using an experimental new method to kill prisoners by forcing them to breathe only nitrogen gas.
If the previous attempt to kill Smith was cruel, the next attempt seems likely to be both cruel and unusual. Smith is a guinea pig for Alabama’s latest machinery of death. Nitrogen hypoxia is an especially ghoulish method of death, even when administered correctly (highly unlikely given Alabama’s track record of ineptitude), which suffocates the life out of a conscious subject. “A person would know they are dying—from the inside out,” says anesthesiologist Joel Zivot, an expert in death penalty cases.
Despite their claims of readiness, even the Alabama death squad seems uncertain about how the execution might unfold. Under a 2022 ruling by the US Supreme Court (Ramirez v. Collier) , spiritual advisors and pastors are allowed to pray with and touch condemned prisoners during an execution. But in Smith’s case, the State of Alabama made his spiritual adviser Reverend Jeff Hood sign a waiver requiring him to stay at least three feet away from Smith during the execution. The waiver admits “it would be possible, though ‘highly unlikely,’ that a hose supplying nitrogen to Smith’s mask detaches from his face, filling an area around him with the potentially deadly odorless, tasteless, invisible gas.”
What does it say about the morally-enervated condition of our political culture that the state of Alabama is so eager to try for a second time to kill someone (whose own jury didn’t think should be put to death in the first place) that it’s willing to put the lives of a pastor and its prison execution team at risk, using an experimental execution method that the American Veterinary Medical Association has determined is too cruel for use as a form of euthanasia for all domestic animals, except chickens and turkeys?
Pity the poultry, but if the gasmen of Holman Prison succeed in putting Kenneth Smith to death without any extreme collateral damage, the valve fueling a horrid new era in American executions will have been opened. Other states are eagerly awaiting the death notice from Holman Prison so that they can accelerate their stalled rosters of slated killings by using this ghastly new method. The execution of Kenneth Smith will signal yet another triumph of American efficiency culture, where death always seems to find a way.