‘Never Alone’: The suffocation of Kenneth Eugene Smith
On Thursday, Smith became the first human ever subjected to a nitrogen suffocation execution. Read one reporter’s eyewitness account.
ATMORE, Ala. — His wife wore a shirt that said “Never Alone.”
It was one of the first things Kenneth Smith saw Thursday night when unnamed representatives of the State of Alabama pulled back the curtains of the execution chamber where he would soon die.
“I will never leave you or forsake you,” her shirt reminded him.
Hours before his death, as Kenny and his family sat around a visitation table inside Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, Deanna Smith said she’d decided to wear the shirt at the last minute. But she’d worn it before.
“It’s the same shirt I wore last time they tried to kill him,” she said, tears pouring down her face. “And I felt like he needed to see that message again.”
In November 2022, Alabama prison officials had failed for hours to gain access to Smith’s veins in an attempt to end his life through lethal injection for his role in the murder of Elizabeth Sennett more than three decades prior. Around 11:21 p.m. that night, less than an hour before the expiration of Smith’s death warrant, members of the execution team abandoned their efforts, leaving Smith poked, prodded, and traumatized.
A year later, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey announced the state would try to kill Smith again, this time using nitrogen suffocation, a method of execution never before used by a government to kill its citizens. Medical experts, religious leaders, and even the United Nations condemned the announcement.
The news had sent Smith back to a hell he’d been trying to escape, he wrote to Tread News at the time.
“Hearing the news from the Alabama Supreme Court this week has sent me spiraling back into deep anxiety and depression,” Smith wrote. “Had I not survived last year, the psychological trauma that starts when you actually get your date and only builds up in intensity throughout the process would neither be here nor there...I'd be dead. But I am here, and that trauma visited upon me last year has remained with me, and I am starting this next round at this extreme high level of PTSD (though mine is not post, it is ongoing). It will only get worse. I'm not ready for this again…”
In the days and hours before Thursday’s execution, Smith spent time with his family and friends inside Holman. There, surrounded by chipping paint, molding bathrooms, and bright-colored urinal deodorizers hung on the walls as air fresheners, the condemned man’s family squeezed whatever life and love they could from the time he had left.
At visitations, Smith appeared strong for his family, who often wept as he held them in his arms.
“We got this,” he’d tell them, flashing a bright, white smile that lifted spirits despite the grim circumstances and bleak surroundings.
On Thursday morning, visitation began late after prison officials said Smith had been slow to wake up, though his wife had been on the phone with him since around 6 a.m. Soon, though, family members had gathered inside Holman and began by reading letters sent to Kenny from across the world.
“In our chapel, we pray for you every day,” Cordia Klein wrote to Smith. She included a photo of the altar where she’d left a remembrance for the condemned man. “Your name is in Bethlehem.”
Later Thursday morning, Smith was brought his final meal – a T-bone steak, cheese-covered hashbrowns, and scrambled eggs – which he shared with his family and friends.
“Let’s break bread together,” he told them, pushing the tray to the center of the white plastic table.
Correctional officers reminded Smith that all food and drinks would need to leave the visitation area before 10 a.m. given concerns from medical experts that Smith could vomit inside the nitrogen mask, eventually choking to death.
Smith and his family viewed the restriction as another way for the state to flex its power over them.
The day before, it had been Deanna’s Bible, which prison officials interrupted visitation to confiscate.
“You can’t have that in here,” the guard told her.
She’d been soft-spoken all morning, barely audible as she explained how she felt about the state’s planned attempt at her husband’s life. Now, her voice was firm and clear.
“My Bible?” she asked. “I’ve brought it to every visit I’ve had. I brought it to every visit the last time you tried to kill him.”
The past didn’t matter. The guard took the Bible, left the visitation room, and locked the door behind her.
There was his friend’s untimely removal from Holman, too. Liz Bruenig, a reporter for The Atlantic magazine, was asked to leave the facility and banned from witnessing the execution over the use of a pen during visitation.
“They should take that pen and shove it,” one of his family members said after learning of Bruenig’s removal.
It wasn’t until late afternoon — around 2:45 — that Kenneth Smith’s upbeat veneer began to crack.
Smith, a metallic cross hanging from his neck, broke down as his mother Linda, 78, began to cry. The rest of his family looked on, unable to provide any antidote for what would soon come.
By 4 p.m., Kenneth Smith’s final visitation was coming to an end. His family and friends had formed a circle of chairs, holding each other’s hands. Smith walked from person to person, hugging each one and telling them what they meant to him.
“This is my little girl,” he said of his mother toward the end of the visit’s end. “One of my first memories is us running through the woods away from my father. We should have never had to do that. But she’s always taken care of me.”
Smith began to cry.
His mother, 78, squeezed her son’s hand.
“You were my pride and joy,” she said. As the tears fell, a smile crossed her face. “I love you.”
Before Smith left, everyone in the room stood, each person’s hand interlaced with the next.
The condemned man began to pray.
“We know you intervene when no one else can,” he prayed.
Smith thanked God for those who supported him during his time on death row, a sentiment he would repeat in the execution chamber hours later.
“In Jesus’ name we pray,” he said. “Amen.”
Smith hugged everyone again, and his mother held his hand and walked him over to the correctional officer waiting for him at the door. The officer cuffed Kenny, and a few moments later, his family and friends watched as he was marched down the hallway towards his own death.
The other door to the visitation room quickly opened.
“Let’s go, folks,” an officer said bluntly.
Still, Deanna Smith looked back to get another glimpse at her husband. She signed “I love you.” It wouldn’t be the last time.
A few hours later, a majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court denied Smith’s final appeal.
In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Smith should not be forced to serve as Alabama’s latest guinea pig.
“Twice now this Court has ignored Smith’s warning that Alabama will subject him to an unconstitutional risk of pain. The first time, Smith’s predictions came true. He “survived to describe the intense fear and pain [he] experienced during Alabama’s tortuous attempts to execute [him],” Sotomayor wrote. “This time, he predicts that Alabama’s protocol will cause him to suffocate and choke to death on his own vomit. I sincerely hope that he is not proven correct a second time. With deep sadness, but commitment to the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, I respectfully dissent.”
Smith and his family wouldn’t get to read the court’s decision before the execution began.
Instead, Smith was soon moved to the execution chamber, where he was strapped to a Stryker gurney and fitted with a gas mask that covered his entire face, from forehead to chin. A brand name on the mask’s front was covered with black tape.
Smith’s family was soon moved to a witness room adjoining the chamber.
“STAY SEATED AND QUIET,” a car tag placed above the window onto the chamber demanded of witnesses. The witness room was lit by a dim, salmon colored light, with around a dozen chairs packed into a small, tiled space. A single box of tissues sat on the window sill. Members of the media soon filed in behind the family, taking their seats to observe what would be the nation’s first execution by nitrogen suffocation.
Around 7:53, correctional officers opened the curtains to the execution chamber, revealing Smith, gas mask already affixed, just beyond. Smith lay crucifixion style, his arms outstretched at his sides, strapped to the gurney with taut black buckles.
Smith looked over at his family and smiled. Deanna and Smith’s son Steven signed “I love you.” Smith’s smile reached from ear to ear. He signed them back despite the straps: “I love you, too.”
Around 7:55, a correctional officer removed a cap on the side of the gas mask and plugged a microphone into the wall. Holman Warden Terry Raybon then read the death warrant authorizing Smith’s execution and asked for any last words.
“Tonight, Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards,” Smith said. He thanked those who supported him in the wake of the botched attempt at his life a year earlier. “I’m leaving with love, peace, and light. Thank you for supporting me. I love all of you.”
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Around 7:57, Smith began to react to the nitrogen flowing into the mask covering his face. He began thrashing against the straps, his whole body and head violently jerking back and forth for several minutes.
As he convulsed, Deanna Smith began to sob. The text on her shirt, “Never Alone,” still reflected in the glass of the witness window.
Soon, for around a minute, Smith appeared heaving and retching inside the mask.
By around 8:00, Smith’s struggle against the restraints had lessened, though he continued to gasp for air. Each time he did so, his body lifted against the restraints.
Smith’s efforts to breathe continued for several minutes as his spiritual advisor Jeff Hood prayed nearby, tears streaming down his face.
Soon, one of two correctional officers in the execution chamber stepped over Smith and looked into the mask but quickly returned to his position near the back wall of the room.
Around 8:07 p.m., Smith made his last visible effort to breathe.
Then, for about 8 minutes, witnesses watched on as Kenny lay motionless on the gurney in front of them. His hand, which had shown the “I love you sign,” was now balled into a fist, his black wedding ring standing out against his pale skin in the harsh fluorescent lights.
At 8:15, prison officials closed the curtains to the execution chamber. An Alabama Department of Corrections official later relayed his time of death as 8:23 p.m.
After the execution, Deanna Smith and Steven Tigglewood drove back to the nearby hotel where they’d been staying. As she drove, Smith began thinking out loud.
“Nobody should ever have to go through that again,” she said, sobbing as she tried her best to drive safely. “I wish he wouldn’t have had to go through this, but I hope that what happened tonight may save some of his brothers in the future. They all deserve better. We all deserve better.”