It is two months since I spoke to Kenneth Smith, the Death Row inmate who is due to be executed in the early hours of tomorrow morning.
He told me then that he was ‘absolutely terrified’ at the prospect. Hardly surprising, you might say, but ‘Kenny’ – as he is known to the staff who have been his jailers for the past 35 years – had a very particular reason to dread his final moments.
In November 2022, after three men had spent 90 minutes trying to kill him with a cocktail of drugs before being forced to give up after failing to raise a vein, one of his would-be executioners attempted to give him solace by reassuring him that lethal injection was a much better way to go than being gassed.
‘He was trying to comfort me and we got into this bizarre conversation,’ Smith, 58, said.
‘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.’
However, just a week later, the state of Alabama announced that it would seek to kill Smith in this way, setting him on a bleak path to becoming the first person in America to be executed by a new, untested gassing method known as ‘nitrogen hypoxia’.
This involves fitting the victim with a face mask and forcing them to breathe pure nitrogen until they suffocate. The state claims it should take a few seconds for the gas to knock Smith unconscious and between five and 15 minutes to kill him.
But opponents say despatching him in this way is ‘astonishingly reckless’ and the equivalent of ‘human experimentation’ as no one can possibly know whether this process – sometimes used to kill pigs but banned by vets as a method of putting down most animals – is painless.
And some medical experts reckon it could result in a range of catastrophic mishaps, ranging from violent convulsions to survival in a vegetative state.
Kenneth Smith’s lawyers claimed the method would breach the US Constitution’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and launched a last-minute appeal.
But on Wednesday, the US Supreme Court and a lower appeals court both declined to block the execution.
Smith is imprisoned in the William C Holman Correctional Facility deep in the thick marsh forests of central Alabama.
The father of four was convicted of the 1988 murder of 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett in the town of Sheffield, Alabama.
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 the insurance money. Smith admitted he took part in her assault but denied intending to murder her.
Told to make it look like a robbery, the then 22-year-old Smith stole the Sennetts’ video recorder – a crucial error that led to his conviction.
After decades of legal wrangling, Smith – who says he found God during his 33 years on Death Row – was scheduled to be executed on November 17, 2022.
And so it is that he became only the second man alive who could tell you what it was like to be executed. (The other being Alan Miller, a triple murderer who had undergone a very similar experience two months earlier.)
Smith spent much of that horrifying day with his family and friends in Holman’s visitation area as his lawyers went through the process of 11th-hour 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.
Just before 8pm, prison guards swarmed into Holman’s ‘death cell’ and summarily prepared Smith for execution, although legal discussions were ongoing.
He’d been on the phone to his wife Dee as they waited to hear any updates on legal efforts to delay his death warrant for that day. ‘When they came and told me I needed to give them the phone, that was the difficult part of that night,’ he told me.
The ten-strong squad of guards then put handcuffs and leg irons on him for the short walk to the nearby execution chamber.
Over the next four hours, he would 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.
The torture began when 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 continued legal wrangling behind the scenes.
According to a court filing by his lawyers, Smith ‘started descending into hopelessness and despair’.
At 10pm – 23 minutes before the Supreme Court did indeed finally 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. He 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’.
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.
Red Scrubs 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.
‘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 – ten 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 has since compared the experience to being put through a sewing machine.
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 didn’t know they had run out of time to carry out the death warrant before a midnight deadline.
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 on his feet 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.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and his prison psychiatrist said he suffered from insomnia, depression and anxiety.
Smith said that after three decades on Death Row and that first execution ordeal, he felt he had been punished enough.
When we spoke on the first anniversary of his bungled execution, he told me memories of that night have been flooding back. ‘Those guards who carried me around and strapped me down and did nothing to help me when I asked for it, I’ve seen them every single day, Tom,’ he said.
‘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,’ he said. ‘And I’ve been struggling with depression and nightmares – I’m in pretty bad shape.’
Given the brutally untested nature of the method of execution planned for Kenneth Smith tonight, yet more horrors might lie ahead for him.