Just before 8pm, prison guards swarmed into the ‘death cell’ holding inmate Kenneth Smith and summarily prepared him for execution. He’d been on the phone to his wife Dee as they both waited to hear any updates on legal efforts to delay his death warrant for that day.
‘We need the phone, Kenny,’ one guard told him and he quickly said goodbye to her for what they both assumed was the last time.
The 10-strong squad of guards put handcuffs and leg irons on him for the short walk to the nearby execution chamber of the William C Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, where he was to die by lethal injection.
It was November 17 last year and, after decades of legal wrangling, the convicted killer who’d found God during his 33 years on Death Row had resigned himself to dying that night.
Over the next four hours, he’d need his faith as never before. For he was to endure what he says was searing physical pain and unbearable mental torture as bungling executioners fumbled hopelessly in their efforts to attach two intravenous lines to his body, and then ran out of time to kill him before his death warrant expired.
Smith, 58, is in the extraordinary position of being able to describe what it is like to be executed in the U.S. — because he survived.
America’s ‘double jeopardy’ rule forbids the justice system trying a defendant twice for the same crime, but there’s nothing in the U.S. constitution to say they can’t try to execute them twice.
And so Smith is now fighting the Deep South state’s plans for him in January to become the first person in America to be executed by a new, untested method — forcing him to breathe pure nitrogen until he suffocates.
Proponents and critics argue over whether the process, known as ‘nitrogen hypoxia’ — sometimes used to kill pigs — is painless.
Opponents say killing Smith in this way is ‘astonishingly reckless’ and the equivalent of ‘human experimentation’. His lawyers claim the method would breach the U.S. constitution’s ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.
Without doubt, Smith’s horrific ordeal during last November’s botched execution was inordinately cruel, whatever his crimes, and will form an important part of their case.
In a rare interview from prison this week, Smith told the Mail that with the first anniversary of his bungled execution approaching, memories of that night have been flooding back. ‘I’ve tried to keep it out of my mind for the past year but I’ve been reliving this s**t for the past week. I’ve been sick to my stomach and not eaten. And I’ve been struggling with depression and nightmares — I’m in pretty bad shape,’ he said.