An inmate in Alabama was strapped to a death chamber gurney for hours Thursday evening, his lawyers say, as courts weighed appeals over his execution in the murder-for-hire plot of a pastor’s wife.
Ultimately, the execution of death row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith was called off for the night after prison officials were unable to get the lethal injection underway within the 100-minute window between the courts clearing the way for it to begin and a midnight deadline when the death warrant expired for the day. Officials cited a problem finding a vein for the lethal injection.
It marked the third such failed execution in the state — a problem that experts say is unprecedented nationally.
Attorneys for Smith say he was strapped to the death chamber gurney at Holman Correctional Facility for four hours as the state began preparing for his execution at 7:45 p.m. local time. Officials worked to ready the lethal injection while Smith’s request for a stay was pending before the U.S. 11th Circuit Court.
Smith remained there even after the appeals court granted a stay of execution and the case moved to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately lifted the stay at about 10:20 p.m., his attorneys said. An hour later, Alabama abandoned its attempt to execute Smith at 11:20 p.m. Thursday, citing legal maneuverings that created a late start and difficulties finding a vein for the lethal injection.
Kenneth Smith marked Alabama’s third failed execution
The uncompleted execution of Smith was the state’s second such instance of being unable to kill an inmate in the past two months and its third since 2018. The state completed an execution in July, but only after a three-hour delay caused at least partly by the same problem with starting an IV line.
A leader at the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death penalty group with a large database on executions, said no state other than Alabama has had to halt an execution in progress since 2017, when Ohio halted Alva Campbell’s lethal injection because workers couldn’t find a vein.
According to Ngozi Ndulue, deputy director of the Washington-based group, the only other lethal injection stopped before an inmate died also was in Ohio, in 2009.
“So Alabama has more aborted lethal injections in the past few years than the rest of the country has overall,” she said.
Something has obviously gone wrong with the state’s execution procedure, Ndulue said.
“I think Alabama clearly has some explaining to do, but also some reflection to do about what is going wrong in its execution process,” she said. “The question is whether Alabama is going to take that seriously.”
Lawyers argue prison may have violated execution protocols
Thomas Wilson, deputy solicitor general representing the state in Smith’s federal litigation, sent an email to Smith’s attorneys, Andrew Johnson and Robert Grass, at 7:45 p.m. CT, explaining that the state was preparing for Smith’s execution.
A screenshot of the email was included in an emergency motion to give attorneys access to Smith and for Alabama to preserve evidence from Thursday night. The motion was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama Friday morning.
It’s unclear what the state was doing as it prepared Smith, 57, for execution. Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner told media witnesses after calling off the execution Thursday that it had began attempting intravenous access only after the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the 11th Circuit’s stay at 10:22 p.m., which would have cleared prison officials to execute him.
Smith’s attorneys argue the prison may have violated its execution protocol as well as a federal court order from U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. to “strictly follow” that protocol.
Smith has injuries and testimonial evidence that need to be photographed or filmed as soon as possible, his lawyers wrote.
“It is Plaintiff’s counsel’s understanding that Mr. Smith was strapped to a gurney for approximately four hours last night. Counsel needs to meet with Mr. Smith to observe and interview him about last night’s events. Counsel is prepared to travel to Holman and to meet with Mr. Smith today and to have a medical professional evaluate Mr. Smith as soon as possible and over the course of the weekend if necessary,” wrote Johnson, one of Smith’s attorneys.
The state recently said in court that it could go as far as inserting an IV line into a condemned inmate while a stay was in place, arguing that an execution doesn’t begin until the drugs of the lethal injection begin to flow. At a Nov. 9 hearing regarding claims brought by Alan Miller, who also survived the state’s first attempt to execute him on Sept. 22 after staff failed to find a suitable vein, Huffaker asked deputy attorney general James Houts if Alabama’s corrections department could strap an inmate to the gurney and put a needle in their arm before a stay was lifted.
“We could,” Houts replied. “I’m not saying we do, but we could.”
What did Kenneth Smith do?
Smith, 57, was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. Thursday at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, for the contract killing of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett in 1988.
Authorities believe Sennett’s husband, Charles Sennett Sr. — a preacher in the state — paid $3,000 for his wife to be killed so he could claim insurance money to pay his debts. Sennett killed himself when police turned to him as a suspect.
Two others, Billy Gray Williams and John Forrest Parker, were also convicted in Elizabeth Sennett’s death. She was beaten and stabbed eight times at her home in Cherokee, a rural town in Colbert County. The state executed Parker in 2010 by lethal injection. Williams, who was sentenced to life without parole, died in prison in 2020.
Evan Mealins is the justice reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanMealins.
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