The humanity of Kenneth Eugene Smith
Alabama will attempt to kill Smith for the second time on Thursday in the nation's first execution by nitrogen suffocation.
ATMORE, Ala. — Alabama confiscated her Bible.
Deanna Smith’s pink leather-bound Bible had sat in front of her Tuesday morning in the visitation room at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, as she spoke about what the next few days might hold.
Soon, the State of Alabama will attempt — for the second time — to execute her husband, Kenneth Eugene Smith, for his role in the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett.
Less than an hour into Tread’s interview with Smith and his family, a correctional officer entered the room.
“You can’t have that in here,” the guard told Deanna.
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. But now, as the state once again flexed its power over her, her voice was clear and firm.
“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.
The confiscation was abrupt, but Smith and his family said nothing surprises them anymore. At every turn, they explained, the State of Alabama has done whatever it could to devalue their humanity. But Smith said he still has hope.
“The fat lady ain’t sang yet,” he told Tread on Tuesday, a metallic cross hanging from his neck.
For years, though, Alabama has been preparing for this very moment.
As states have found it increasingly difficult to obtain the drugs necessary for lethal injections, death penalty advocates began to eye alternative methods of killing human beings. Among those alternatives is nitrogen suffocation.
A redacted protocol released by the state outlines its plan to strap a mask to Kenny Smith’s face and fill it with pure nitrogen in an effort to Smith’s lead to death by hypoxia — a lack of oxygen. At least that’s what state officials hope will happen.
The execution method is untested, having never been used for judicially-sanctioned executions anywhere in the world. The storage and use of nitrogen gas, lawyers for the state have acknowledged, is risky, posing potentially fatal hazards not only to the state’s intended victim, but also to prison workers, spiritual advisors, members of the press, and other incarcerated individuals.
This isn’t the first time Alabama has tried to kill Kenny Smith.
In November 2022, Alabama officials strapped Smith down to a gurney and poked and prodded his body again and again in attempts to access his veins. At 11:21 p.m., after accessing only one of the two veins necessary for the lethal injection to move forward, Alabama abandoned its attempt to execute him. It would be the state’s third botched execution in a row.
That night, Kenny Smith became a survivor. On Thursday, he’ll struggle to remain one.
Still, Smith said he’s not hopeless.
“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” he said. “But I’ve cleaned my cell out, and I’ve made the mental shift I need to make.”
In late 2023, the Alabama Supreme Court cleared the way for Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to set a second execution date for Smith. He wrote to Tread at the time about the development.
“There wasn't much news about me in the news in the past month or so, so I had begun to feel a little more like myself in the last few weeks. But hearing the news from the Alabama Supreme Court this week has sent me spiraling back into deep anxiety and depression.
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…”
According to Smith, things did get worse.
Forced to be around guards who participated in the state’s first attempt at his life, Smith said that early on, he was seething with anger.
“They sat there and watched what happened to me,” Smith said. “It was a room full of people, but I was all alone.”
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He considered what happened to him that night to be torture.
As time wore on, the anger melted into a resigned acceptance.
“It’s the reality of being behind these bars,” he explained. “I have no choice but to accept it — to accept them despite what they did.”
No matter the world’s perception of Smith, his family said he doesn’t deserve to die.
His mother, Linda Smith, said she still remembered going into labor with Kenny.
“It was July 4th, and he was born 10 minutes until six,” she said, smiling for the first time on Tuesday morning. “It was the happiest I’d ever been.
Linda said Smith and his brother Joey, a year and a half his junior, had been inseparable as kids. She remembered them playing in the woods — just enjoying each other’s company.
One of Smith’s sons, Steven Tiggleman, said some of his earliest memories are of his dad, who was incarcerated when he was just four.
“I remember riding in a dune buggy with him, and just being so, so happy,” Tiggleman said. “And I remember when he gave me an art set full of watercolors.”
Tiggleman said that despite his father’s life behind bars, Smith has always been there for him.
“He’s never been absent from my life,” he said. “He’s helped me through so much. I’ll call him, and he’ll pray over me.”
Tiggleman said he wants people to know that Smith is more than what he did on a single day decades ago. His life, his son said, has value.
“I need him in my life,” he said. “I need him.”
In the decades since Smith gave his son his first art set, he’s become an artist himself. He draws and paints whatever speaks to him.
“It has to jump out at me and say ‘Draw me,’” Smith said.
In the wake of Alabama’s last attempt on his life, Smith said it was an image of a young girl that spoke to him. In it, the girl is sitting on the floor, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees.
“I loved the light and the dark,” he said. “She looked like she just came through something, and that’s something I felt deeply, too.”
Another time, it was something in his cell that called out to him — a pair of glasses gifted to Smith by Henry Hays before Hays’ execution.
Hays, a former KKK member, had been convicted of the lynching of Michael Donald, a Black teenager, in Mobile, Alabama, in 1981. His death sentence led to one of the only examples in state history of a white perpetrator being sentenced to execution for the murder of a Black victim.
When Hays came to Holman, Smith explained, Black folks on the row had a choice to make. They could harm Hays. They could hand him over “to the skinheads.” Or they could take him under their wing, forgiving him and regarding his life as having value, too. Smith said they chose the latter, and that decision, he said, reflected exactly who they were.
“That’s where humanity has to get to,” Smith said. “All life has value, and that’s something we all have to accept.”
Kenneth Smith has been executed by the State of Alabama. An eyewitness account will be posted on Tread Friday morning.