The White House called Alabama’s use of nitrogen hypoxia to execute a prisoner Thursday night “troubling,” noting that President Biden has long had “deep concerns” with how the death penalty is implemented.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, a death row prisoner at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., was executed Thursday night using nitrogen gas, the first known instance in the world that method was used to execute a prisoner.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday that reports of Smith’s execution were “troubling to us as an administration.” She added that it underscored why Biden supported Attorney General Merrick Garland’s 2021 moratorium on federal executions, pending a review of death penalty policy changes made during the Trump administration.
“The president has long said and has had deep, deep, deep concerns with how the death penalty is implemented and whether it is consistent with our values,” Jean-Pierre said. “So we are deeply troubled by it, by what we heard by about Kenneth Smith’s death.”
According to media witnesses Thursday, Smith appeared conscious for at least two minutes while the gas flowed to his mask. He shook and writhed for at least two minutes on the gurney, and this was followed by two minutes of deep breaths and then a period of time during which media witnesses were unable to determine whether he was breathing.
The curtain closed at 8:15 p.m. local time, 10 minutes before the state pronounced him dead.
Speaking to reporters after the execution, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm called Smith’s shaking and writhing “involuntary” and said a 45-minute delay in the execution was because of “a hiccup on the EKG line” that was preventing a good reading.
Asked Friday for details on why the White House found the execution so troubling, Jean-Pierre repeated: “The use of nitrogen gas, of course, it is troubling. It is troubling to us.”
She said she had not discussed Smith’s death specifically with Biden but that the president had spoken to his concerns about the death penalty more broadly. During his 2020 campaign for president, Biden vowed to abolish the federal death penalty, but has only gone so far as to support the Justice Department’s pause on executions at the federal level.
Alabama officials had previously tried and failed to execute Smith by lethal injection in 2022. States that still use the death penalty have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs, with lawmakers and prison officials adopting alternative methods as backup options. Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma have approved nitrogen hypoxia, while other states have brought back the long-disused firing squad.
Medical professionals and human rights advocates had argued for months that Alabama’s efforts to use an untested execution method on Smith amounted to human experimentation, claims that Smith’s lawyers took all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite the historic nature of Smith’s execution, only five independent witnesses from the news media, including the Associated Press, were able to observe the process. Smith’s family, as well as the family of his victim, Elizabeth Sennett, attended Thursday’s execution.
Smith was convicted in Sennett’s 1988 death in Colbert County, Ala. Sennett was found beaten and stabbed in her home, which was staged to look like a robbery had taken place. Investigators later found that Sennett’s husband, the Rev. Charles Sennett, had hired a hit man to kill her so he could collect on her life insurance policy to cover debts.
John Forrest Parker and Smith were paid $1,000 each by a middleman on Sennett’s behalf to carry out the murder. Charles Sennett killed himself when police learned of his role in the plot, while Billy Gray Williams, the middleman, was sentenced to life in prison. Parker was executed in 2010.
Ann Marimow contributed to this report.