Kenneth Smith could be the first person executed with nitrogen gas. He spoke with NPR

By Chiara Eisner
The Alabama Department of Corrections plans to execute Kenneth Smith on Jan. 25 using nitrogen gas. It will be the first time the gas has been used as an execution method in the U.S. Mark Harris for NPR

Alabama has already tried once to execute Kenneth Smith. On the evening of Nov. 17, 2022, Smith lay on a gurney as workers tried for an hour to insert needles into the veins of his hand, arms and collarbone so they could put him to death by lethal injection. Just before midnight, the execution was called off.

Surviving an execution is uncommon. Only one other prisoner alive today has done it — a death row prisoner from Alabama whom the state also failed to execute by lethal injection. But Smith’s case is even more unusual. When the state again tries to execute him, on Jan. 25, Alabama plans to use nitrogen gas. It will be the first time the gas has been used as an execution method in the U.S.

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The method has come under scrutiny for safety and human rights reasons. NPR exclusively published a document that showed the Alabama Department of Corrections had required Smith’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, to sign a waiver acknowledging that the state believes he could be at risk of exposure to the gas. In January, the United Nations published a statement that declared U.N. experts were concerned the method could lead to grave suffering.

Smith, one of two men convicted in 1988 for a murder-for-hire killing,challenged the execution in state court. He and his lawyers claimed that a second execution attempt would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, since Smith already suffered from the trauma of the failed execution attempt. The Alabama Supreme Court rejected the appeal on Jan. 12.

Smith rarely speaks with journalists. But he called NPR investigative reporter Chiara Eisner from the prison last year on Dec. 7, where he’s being housed in Atmore, Ala. He discussed what it was like to experience the failed execution, and how he felt about the prospect of undergoing another attempt, this time by gas.

Interview Highlights

On his experience of the failed 2022 execution

I was strapped down, couldn’t catch my breath. I was shaking like a leaf. I was absolutely alone in a room full of people, and not one of them tried to help me at all, and I was crying out for help. It was a month or so before I really started to come back to myself.

On his fears about nitrogen gas

I’m still carrying the trauma from the last time. I’m being treated for PTSD, and I struggle daily. So when I got this date, my level of anxiety this time was not even close to what I faced last time. Everybody is telling me that I’m going to suffer. Well, I’m absolutely terrified.

On what it’s like to face an upcoming execution

I’ve been doing time for 35 years now, and I’ve tried to place myself in my brothers’ shoes when they’re around the corner and going through this. But nothing prepares you for it. The anxiety and stuff starts building up before you ever get your date. And now that you’re approaching that time, the anxiety starts to build. And, yeah, there is a mental trauma there that I never realized until I went through that.

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