Just before 8pm, prison guards swarmed into the ‘death cell’ holding inmate Kenneth Smith and summarily prepared him for execution. He’d been on the phone to his wife Dee as they both waited to hear any updates on legal efforts to delay his death warrant for that day.
‘We need the phone, Kenny,’ one guard told him and he quickly said goodbye to her for what they both assumed was the last time.
The 10-strong squad of guards put handcuffs and leg irons on him for the short walk to the nearby execution chamber of the William C Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, where he was to die by lethal injection.
It was November 17 last year and, after decades of legal wrangling, the convicted killer who’d found God during his 33 years on Death Row had resigned himself to dying that night.
Over the next four hours, he’d need his faith as never before. For he was to endure what he says was searing physical pain and unbearable mental torture as bungling executioners fumbled hopelessly in their efforts to attach two intravenous lines to his body, and then ran out of time to kill him before his death warrant expired.
Smith, 58, is in the extraordinary position of being able to describe what it is like to be executed in the U.S. — because he survived.
America’s ‘double jeopardy’ rule forbids the justice system trying a defendant twice for the same crime, but there’s nothing in the U.S. constitution to say they can’t try to execute them twice.
And so Smith is now fighting the Deep South state’s plans for him in January to become the first person in America to be executed by a new, untested method — forcing him to breathe pure nitrogen until he suffocates.
Proponents and critics argue over whether the process, known as ‘nitrogen hypoxia’ — sometimes used to kill pigs — is painless.
Opponents say killing Smith in this way is ‘astonishingly reckless’ and the equivalent of ‘human experimentation’. His lawyers claim the method would breach the U.S. constitution’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.
Without doubt, Smith’s horrific ordeal during last November’s botched execution was inordinately cruel, whatever his crimes, and will form an important part of their case.
In a rare interview from prison this week, Smith told the Mail that with the first anniversary of his bungled execution approaching, memories of that night have been flooding back. ‘I’ve tried to keep it out of my mind for the past year but I’ve been reliving this s**t for the past week. I’ve been sick to my stomach and not eaten. And I’ve been struggling with depression and nightmares — I’m in pretty bad shape,’ he said.
The lethal injection execution of a close friend and fellow Death Row inmate there on Thursday had compounded his misery, he said.
Astonishingly, given his circumstances, Smith revealed that one of his executioners a year ago had actually reassured him after they gave up trying to kill him that lethal injection was a much better way to die than being gassed.
‘He was trying to comfort me and we got into this bizarre conversation. He said: “Oh, you know, man, if you got to go, this is the way to go.” Lethal injection, he said, is painless. And he said that gas is suffocation and that nobody knows what is going to happen. I’ve not been able to get that out of my head.’
Given what happened a year ago and the fears over using nitrogen, he sees little hope that his second execution attempt is ‘going to end well’ and was ‘absolutely terrified’. He added: ‘I have to deal with that and I have to find a way to comfort my family.’
In 1988, the father-of-four admitted murdering 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett in the northern Alabama town of Sheffield.
He and another man, John Parker, were paid $1,000 each by her husband, Charles Sennett, a local church pastor who was having an affair with another woman, to kill his wife so he could collect insurance money.
Told to make it look like a robbery, the then 22-year-old Smith took home the Sennetts’ video recorder — a crucial error that led to his conviction.
Smith is being held at the Holman prison deep in the thick marsh forests of central Alabama where, on the scheduled day of his execution, the warden laid on extra security with dog patrols around the perimeter.
Smith spent much of the day with his family and friends in Holman’s visitation area as his lawyers went through the process of last-minute legal appeals.
He had a last meal — his choice of fried catfish and shrimp — before being visited one last time by a local lay minister who has been his spiritual adviser.
As the door of his cell is made of metal bars, that important final meeting was disrupted, Smith said, by the guards noisily feasting on sandwiches, crisps and fizzy drinks outside. But by the time they came to collect him, he had been alone for several hours. He told them he wasn’t going to fight them. ‘We know you aren’t, Kenny,’ one replied.
He would undoubtedly have resisted rather more vigorously had he known that, two minutes before he was taken into the execution chamber, an appeals court had actually agreed to stay his death sentence.
Given Alabama’s alarming history of botched lethal injection executions, the judges suspected the team in charge of connecting him to intravenous tubes for the killer drugs would have ‘extreme difficulty’ in accessing his veins and he would consequently suffer ‘super-added pain’.
For some still-unknown reason, the message to hold the execution never got through and Smith was strapped ‘painfully tight’ to a gurney by his arms, legs and feet. There he remained for two hours, immobilised and unaware of the legal wrangling behind the scenes. All the while, two men and a woman, clearly officials, silently observed him — one clutching a file and the others armed with notepads and pens.
Feeling that his circulation was being cut off by the straps and worried that his family witnesses — his wife, son and daughter-in-law — hadn’t arrived, after an hour he asked the three guards in the room what was happening. They said they didn’t know either.
According to a court filing by his lawyers, Smith ‘started descending into hopelessness and despair’.
He was convinced he was going to die without his loved ones there to see him go. In fact, it appears the delay was because senior state officials were waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the appeal court ruling — even if that meant keeping Smith in agonising suspense strapped to the gurney.
At 10pm — 23 minutes before the Supreme Court did indeed approve his execution, three unidentified men wearing blue, red and green sets of surgical scrubs, entered the chamber wheeling a medical trolley. They were the team that would inject him with the cocktail of drugs — midazolam hydrochloride, rocuronium bromide and potassium chloride — that would theoretically first sedate him and then stop his heart.
‘Blue Scrubs’, who Smith remembered seeing chain-smoking outside the prison after previous executions, tied a tourniquet around Smith’s upper arm and started sticking a needle into him. When Smith protested that he was painfully stabbing into his muscle, Blue Scrubs told him: ‘No I’m not.’
After that attempt failed, it was the turn of Green Scrubs on Smith’s other side. Smith claims one of the three officials was taking photos on his phone, while Green Scrubs began slapping the inmate’s right hand to find a vein.
With each jab, the condemned man told his lawyers, he ‘could feel the needle going in and out and moving around under his skin, causing him great pain’.
Smith has since said that the ceaseless jabs became so ridiculous they turned into farce, especially when Green Scrubs eventually asked Smith to squeeze his hand to make the vein stand out better.
Smith says he had been a compliant prisoner for 35 years but that was too much.
‘I am f***ed if I am going to participate in my own execution,’ he said in a recent interview.
And all the while, he says, everyone in the room ignored his pleas that he was in pain, especially when their needles regularly jabbed his muscles.
By now, he says, he’d entirely lost the composure he’d desperately wanted to maintain for his family witnesses and for expressing his final words.
Witnesses, including families of both the victim and the condemned, are allowed to watch an execution through small windows but the curtain is pulled back on the bleak scene in the chamber only when the lethal drugs are about to flow into the body.
Smith’s family, in fact, never got to the prison, instead waiting on tenterhooks at a nearby casino hotel for an official van sent to collect them — which never came.
Compounding his distress, Smith noticed other members of the prison staff — for reasons he could not fathom — were now photographing him on their phones.
Unable to find a second usable vein even after examining his feet and scanning his arms with ultraviolet light, the hapless executioners asked the guards to tilt the gurney so Smith’s feet were pointing upwards, leaving him in an inverted crucifix position.
Everyone but his guards exited the chamber, leaving Smith like that for several minutes in a deeply uncomfortable position. He believes the intention was to get blood to run towards his head so he could be injected in the neck.
When the IV team returned, Red Scrubs — the leader — was wearing a mask and plastic face shield which Smith’s lawyers believe was to protect him from spraying blood. They unbuttoned the prisoner’s shirt and the man plunged a huge new needle — bigger than any Smith had ever seen — under the inmate’s collarbone.
He was looking to attach a so-called central line (or central venous catheter) which is much longer than a regular intravenous line and goes all the way up to a vein near or inside the heart.
The pain became excruciating and it felt like he was being stabbed with a knife, says Smith. He shouted for them to stop, but a prison official responded by twisting Smith’s head to one side to provide a better entry point for the enormous needle.
‘Kenny, this is for your own good,’ he assured Smith. According to court papers, the inmate ‘forcefully expressed disagreement with that statement but did not resist’.
As his body writhed and shook uncontrollably, his shower shoes came off and fell to the floor.
At one point, Blue Scrubs snapped at him: ‘You can’t feel that,’ convinced he had been successfully anaesthetised.
‘I kept telling them, “Call the f***ing judge. My case number is 2:22-CV-497. Somebody in this f***ing room call the judge or my lawyer,” said Smith. But nobody did. He recalls Red Scrubs repeatedly jabbed him in the chest with the large needle — 10 times, he estimates — causing such pain that he could ‘hardly breathe’ and felt he had wet himself. The jabs, he said, ‘felt like an eternity’.
He told the Mail: ‘By the end of it, I wasn’t thinking about prayer. I wasn’t thinking about God or heaven or none of that.
‘I was thinking, “please get that out of my chest”.’
But eventually they did stop and again everyone else left except the guards, leaving Smith still strapped to the gurney and ‘terrified’ as to what they would do next. He wasn’t to know they had run out of time to carry out the death warrant before a midnight deadline.
The IV team later came in to clear items that had fallen to the floor.
Green Scrubs asked him if the pain had gone. ‘No, sir,’ he replied.
The executioner stood over him and said: ‘Everything is going to be all right . . . it’s over with.’
Given there was still a needle sticking in his arm, Smith hardly felt reassured.
But, now his 90-minute ordeal was over, the IV team’s demeanour completely changed: Green Scrubs offered him some water and, holding his hand, told him he would be praying for him.
Why had he survived, he asked. ‘Legal stuff,’ said Green Scrubs who then made his extraordinary assurance about the merits of lethal injection over nitrogen.
Smith was so unsteady he had to be supported back to his cell by a prison guard on either side. They spared him the leg irons but still put him in handcuffs.
He said later that he was left ‘trembling and sweating . . . shocked, disoriented and experiencing post-traumatic stress’.
The identity and qualifications of the would-be executioners have never been revealed, though senior officials insisted some present had ‘medical’ training. Smith believes the pair in green and blue scrubs were Emergency Medical Technicians — essentially ambulance crew.
Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, blamed the failed execution not on incompetence but on last-ditch legal efforts to stay the order.
But ‘attempting it was the right thing to do,’ she insisted.
However, she immediately ordered a moratorium on executions and a ‘top-to-bottom review of the state’s execution process’ so Alabama ‘can successfully deliver justice going forward’.
Smith, who says he continues to suffer lingering pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, is suing the state over its lethal injection procedures.
His lawyers have accused officials of moving him ‘to the front of the line’ for execution by nitrogen hypoxia in order to foil his potentially embarrassing legal action.
Steve Marshall, the attorney general for Alabama, has countered that Smith’s victim’s family ‘has waited an unconscionable 35 years to see justice served’.
Meanwhile, critics say the state has been worryingly opaque about how it will kill with nitrogen, beyond revealing a plan to forcibly place an airtight mask over the prisoner’s face.
Having a year ago been ‘resigned to meet my maker’, Smith told the Mail he is now determined to live and defeat what he calls the ‘evil system’ that wants to execute him.
What happened last year had convinced him ‘that I’m here for a reason’, he said. And after 35 years and that awful night last November, he said he felt he had been punished enough for his crime.
Smith is, of course, aware of what can go wrong and says he is ‘absolutely terrified’ by the prospect.
And though he is no longer resigned to dying and convinced some higher power intended him to live, he may yet be one of the only Death Row prisoners who has to choose a last meal for a second time.