Execution as Advertisement: Killing Kenneth Smith

Image: Jeffrey St. Clair.

“But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

– Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine”

Kenneth Smith was executed by the state of Alabama for a contract killing. He was paid by a pastor to murder his wife. The state of Alabama paid an execution squad to strap Kenneth Smith to a death gurney, clamp a mask over his face, and suffocate him to death with nitrogen gas. Smith thrashed and convulsed for at least four minutes as the nitrogen squeezed the oxygen out of his lungs. What is the message here?

Nitrogen hypoxia was touted as an efficient and humane method of killing humans. Compared to what? The lynchings of 340 people that took place in Alabama between 1877 and 1943? The electric chair? Hanging? Firing squad? Lethal injection, which the state previously used to try to kill Smith and failed? It took Kenneth Smith at least 22 minutes to die, gasping for breath, his stomach heaving, vomiting into his gas mask. Is this the new definition of humane? Is 22 minutes to death a new measure of efficiency?

According to Alabama’s State Attorney General, Steve Marshall, it was a “textbook” case of execution. Who wrote the textbook, Dr. Mengele?  Marshall bragged about the execution as if Alabama had been the first state to land a man on Mars: “As of last night, nitrogen epoxy as a means of execution is no longer an untested method; it is a proven one.” Marshall sounded like a pitchman for an execution franchise.

Even though they managed, barely it seems, to kill Kenneth Smith,  the state still can’t find any doctors willing to supervise its lethal gassings and lend the killings medical legitimacy. They can’t even find a willing veterinarian.  Will Alabama state colleges and universities replace their sociology degrees with a BS in Death Penalty Administration? Will community colleges offer certificates in the proper application of Execution Technologies?

But did the execution of Kenneth Smith really go as smoothly as Marshall claimed? We were told that Smith would slip into unconsciousness almost immediately after the valves were opened and the nitrogen began to flow into his lungs. He didn’t. We were told that the execution would be painless. It wasn’t.  We were told it would all be over in minutes. It wasn’t.

It’s impossible to know the full details of what really happened to Kenneth Smith. How much agony he experienced, how long he struggled for breath, how long it took him to die. Why? Because the state of Alabama closed the curtain on the death chamber before Smith was pronounced dead. The handful of witnesses allowed in the execution viewing room weren’t able to witness his death, only the preamble of his killing. What is the state hiding behind its fatal curtain? An affinity for torture?

How long did it take Kenneth Smith to die? We don’t know for sure. At least 22 minutes. But perhaps as long as 28 minutes. A long time. But perhaps that’s the kind of death Alabama wants. Given the blood-thirsty statements of Governor Kay Ivey and AG Marshall, you’d be forgiven for thinking so.

None of the witnesses were allowed cellphones, cameras, tape recorders, notebooks, pens or pencils in the theater of death. The witnesses had to memorialize the killings in their minds. Here’s what Matt Roney of the Montgomery Advertiser saw: “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…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.”

Smith’s spiritual adviser Jeff Hood stood next to Smith during the execution. Here’s how Hood described the state killing to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now: “What we saw was minutes of someone struggling for their life. We saw minutes of someone heaving back and forth. We saw spit. We saw all sorts of stuff from his mouth develop on the mask. We saw this mask tied to the gurney and him ripping his head forward over and over and over again. And we also saw correction officials in the room who were visibly surprised at how bad this thing went.”

The US Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. But Kenneth Smith’s execution proves these words have lost all meaning. By a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court allowed Alabama to kill Smith. But the cowardly court couldn’t even be bothered to put their reasoning in writing as to why an experimental method of execution didn’t qualify as “unusual” and how a second attempt to kill a man wasn’t considered “cruel.” You can see why these usually garrulous jurists remained mute. Their logic would have been as tortured as the execution itself.

Kenneth Smith was put to death for a murder for hire that took place in 1988. What was gained by his execution? Was he a threat to kill again? By all accounts, he’d been a model prisoner for 35 years.

Kenneth Smith was put to death even though the person who subcontracted him to do the killing, Billy Gray Williams, was sentenced to life without parole.

Kenneth Smith was put to death, even though a jury recommended by an 11-1 vote he receive a life sentence. This recommendation was overruled by the judge in the case, who unilaterally imposed a sentence of death.

Kenneth Smith was put to death, even though the State of Alabama has since banned judicial overrides of jury recommendations in death penalty cases.

Kenneth Smith was put to death, even though the State of Alabama had previously tried to kill him by injecting him with a lethal cocktail of drugs but botched the execution.

Kenneth Smith was put to death, even though the method used to kill him was experimental and had been banned by veterinarians for use on mammals.

Does Kenneth Smith’s execution make anyone feel safer? Thirty-five years after the crime does it make anyone feel like “justice” was done, that a “message” had been sent? If so, what kind of message?

Does killing Kenneth Smith act as a deterrent to potential murderers? Since the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted by the US Supreme Court in 1976, Alabama has executed 76 people, the seventh most of any state in the Union. Yet Alabama’s homicide rate is the fourth highest in the US. Alabama and Oregon have roughly the same population. There were 721 homicides in Alabama last year and only 204 in Oregon. Oregon placed a moratorium on executions in 2011 and has only executed 2 people since 1976. One might argue that the death penalty actually increases homicide rates. Killing begets killing.

So why was Kenneth Smith executed?

Constitutional scholars can’t tell you.

The Catholic Church can’t tell you.

The people who witnessed his death can’t tell you.

His spiritual advisor can’t tell you.

The Supreme Court won’t tell you.

But the State of Alabama will.

Kenneth Smith was executed to advertise that the State of Alabama could kill. It’s as simple and gruesome as that. Not kill efficiently or humanely (as if executions could ever qualify as such). But kill. If its bumbling death squad couldn’t find a vein to poison before, they could locate his lungs this time around. If they couldn’t find a doctor to administer lethal drugs before, they now found people willing to strap a mask around his face, turn on the gas and watch him die, gasping and writhing, for as long as it took without any moral hesitation. The state had found a new way to kill humans and the humans willing to do the job–for a price.

Who benefits? Not the people of Alabama. Not the state’s already strapped budget, which expended millions to put him to death that could have been spent feeding the state’s malnourished kids or tending to its sick. Only the state’s pitiless politicians, a group so monstrous they are willing to use human sacrifice as a campaign theme. 

The State of Alabama has become the very thing it claimed to be punishing: a contract killer.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3