The Death Penalty Is Premeditated Murder

Alabama executed a man last night using a method that experts have deemed too cruel for animals. It was a display of barbarism.

The execution of Kenneth Smith in Alabama last night was a dark moment for humanity and for our political system. We should swiftly relegate such tortures to the past. (Bernd Obermann / Getty Images)

The state of Alabama chose barbarism last night with its execution of Kenneth Smith by an untested method that experts have deemed too cruel to use on animals.

Death penalty inmates aren’t the most sympathetic representatives of the oppressed, and Kenneth Smith is no exception. He was condemned of assisting in the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett, who died of eight stab wounds, and of being paid $1,000 for the task, by her husband, Charles Sennett. (Sennett, having outsourced his wife’s murder to Smith and his accomplices, evaded accountability and punishment by killing himself as soon as he realized he had become a suspect.)

But Alabama, in its premeditated killing of Smith by nitrogen hypoxia, has eclipsed the convicted murderer “on the barbarism scale,” as Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter put it this week. Nitrogen hypoxia has been condemned by veterinary scientists and professional organizations for use in animal euthanasia.

The method is essentially a form of suffocation. Smith and his lawyers argued, before the execution, that there was too great a risk that he would be asphyxiated by his own vomit, or that the brutal procedure would only partially succeed, leaving him in a vegetative state.

While those worst-case scenarios didn’t come to pass, the event was horrific, according to media witnesses and Jeff Hood, the pastor who had become Smith’s spiritual adviser on death row. Hood told the Independent that Smith struggled for his life for twenty-two whole minutes, writhing and gasping for air, and was conscious for at least part of that time. Hood called the execution “torture,” saying “unbelievable evil was unleashed . . . in Alabama.” Smith’s wife and children were present for this ordeal, as was his mother.

Smith, who has been on death row for thirty-five years — a torture in itself, given the horrors of American prisons and the psychic terror and uncertainty of living under a capital sentence — is the first person to be snuffed out by the state this way. He had already endured one failed execution in 2022, when those charged with carrying it out could not find a vein. He was reportedly terrified of the potential torture he might face yesterday.

The death penalty — which in the United States is inflicted almost universally on the poor, often people of color — has been condemned by Amnesty International and many other human rights groups. Its use has been declining for decades in the United States. In 2023, executions were carried out in Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, but that was the lowest number of states participating in capital punishment in two decades. And while public opinion hasn’t generally been progressive on this issue, Gallup reported for the first time ever that more Americans — half — believe that the death penalty is administered unfairly than fairly. Still, in 2023, twenty-four Americans were executed and twenty-one were sentenced to death.

Even by the depraved standards of the US justice system, Smith’s execution is legally questionable. A jury had sentenced him to life in prison, but a judge quashed that decision, condemning him to death instead. Since then, Alabama has barred judges from overruling juries in such cases. But because Smith was given his judgement before the reform was passed, all of his appeals were rejected. At the last minute, the right-wing ghouls on the Supreme Court slapped down Smith’s final appeal. (Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority, condemning Alabama for using Smith as a “guinea pig” for this experimental method of execution.)

In 2020, Joe Biden campaigned on ending the death penalty. Yet the White House has had a characteristically milquetoast response to Smith’s demise. Before the execution yesterday, asked by the media to comment, spokeswoman Olivia Dalton declined to address the specifics of the case, saying that the president had concerns about how capital punishment “is implemented and whether or not it’s consistent with our values of fairness and justice.”

There’s plenty to say about its heinous implementation in Smith’s case, but Dalton’s weak statement is also a long way from the anti–death penalty stance of Biden 2020. While Biden placed a federal moratorium on executions in 2021, it’s unclear what that means, since his Justice Department is seeking the death penalty against the mass shooter who viciously killed ten people in a Buffalo supermarket in 2022.

What’s more, the White House’s statement on Smith’s execution was woefully wimpy. The death penalty isn’t just barbaric because of its implementation, as bad as that can be. As state-sanctioned murder, the death penalty shows a fundamental disregard for human life, calling into question why we even have laws against murder in the first place.

The death penalty also betrays a horrifyingly reductive view of human beings and our possibilities. Smith, who was fifty-eight when he was killed last night, committed one monstrous crime when he was twenty-two, so long ago that most people on earth weren’t born yet. Not only has he not been implicated in any violence since — he has been by all accounts a good father to his four children and a devoted son to his mother. He has expressed remorse for Elizabeth Sennet’s murder, as well as a sense of social responsibility to prevent others from being subjected to death-by-nitrogen-hypoxia. A human being is always more than his worst moment, yet the continued use of the death penalty suggests our dearth of compassion and imagination about the possibilities for human redemption.

Last night was a dark moment for humanity and for our political system. We should swiftly relegate such tortures to the past.