Judge allows first US nitrogen gas execution to go forward with convicted hitman

The defense attorneys had argued that Smith's appeals had not been exhausted.
Kenneth Smith

An Alabama man convicted of a murder-for-hire plot is set to become the first person in the United States to be executed by nitrogen gas following a federal judge's ruling. 

Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was found guilty in 1989 and again in 1996, had asked to be executed by nitrogen suffocation after the first execution attempt via lethal injection failed in November 2022 after the executioner could not find his veins.

U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker on Wednesday rejected arguments from Smith's attorneys that his execution would violate his constitutional rights and that execution by firing squad, as allowed in the state of Utah, should be performed instead. 

The defense attorneys had argued that Smith's appeals had not been exhausted, that having a mask for the execution would restrict his First Amendment right to audibly pray and that the execution itself could constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but the judge still ruled that Smith could be executed on Jan. 25 via suffocation.

"With today’s order, Alabama is an important step closer to holding Kenneth Smith accountable for the heinous murder-for-hire slaying of an innocent woman, Elizabeth Sennett," Alabama Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall said after Huffaker's ruling. "Smith has avoided his lawful death sentence for over 35 years, but the court’s rejection today of Smith’s speculative claims removes an obstacle to finally seeing justice done."

Pastor Charles Sennett had an extramarital affair and large debts, and he had a large insurance policy on his wife, so he paid Smith and Smith's friend, John Parker, $1,000 each to murder his wife, Elizabeth Sennett, officials said. She was brutally beaten, stabbed 10 times and died. 

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