On the evening of November 17, Alabama canceled at the last moment the execution of the death sentence against Kenneth Eugene Smith, a man convicted in 1988 of the murder of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett. Said like this, it sounds like news that has already been heard. In recent years, an execution has often been canceled or postponed due to a last-minute pardon, a Supreme Court ruling or because the state in question was unable to obtain the necessary drugs for lethal injection. But Smith’s story is different, and it is symptomatic of a disturbing situation in the prisons of Alabama.
By the afternoon of November 17, Smith’s lawyers had managed to get a court to stay the execution. But the state had appealed to the supreme court, the highest US justice body, which overturned the decision of the court of appeal and gave the green light for the execution. So around ten in the evening the prisoner It was taken in the Atmore Prison execution chamber and was strapped to a stretcher. The operators have begun to insert the cannula needles that are used to inject the lethal substances. But they managed to enter only one. The procedure had to be completed before it ended on 17 November (ie by midnight), so at 11.21pm, after various attempts, the operators realized they had no more time, canceled the execution and brought the prisoner back to his cell.
It is a situation that has occurred several times in recent months, always with prisoners who had health problems, such as obesity, which made it difficult for health workers to find veins. On 22 September the execution of Alan Eugene Miller, sentenced to death in 2000 for triple murder, was annulled. But the case that caused the most discussion is that of Joe Nathan James, who died on July 28 of this year at the end of a procedure that aroused the indignation not only of the prisoner’s family and lawyers, but also of public opinion in general. His story was told in an article dell’Atlantic.
“The lethal injection procedure went on for about three hours. First, the operators tried a series of needle punctures, without obtaining results. Eventually they made cuts in one arm to get into a vein (a procedure called venous cutdown). Immediately following the execution, John Hamm, the Alabama Department of Prisons Commissioner, said that “nothing unusual” had happened during the execution. The whole story might have gone unnoticed if the Atlantic hadn’t published the results of an independent autopsy performed shortly after James’s death. I was present at the autopsy and saw with my own eyes what they had done to him, all the puncture points and open wounds.”
After it became known how James died, many Alabama inmates on death row filed appeals to stop the executions, arguing that there was a risk of a cruel and therefore unlawful death. It is on this basis that on the afternoon of November 17 the appeal by Kenneth Eugene Smith’s lawyers was accepted and then rejected by the six conservative judges of the supreme court without a detailed explanation.
Smith’s case is also unusual in how he was sentenced in 1988. Eleven of the twelve jurors voted to spare his life and sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But the judge reversed the verdict, arguing that the jurors had taken pity on Smith’s mother’s testimony. In 2017, Alabama passed a law prohibiting judges from overriding juries, but the measure is not retroactive, so Smith remains on death row.
Following the botched execution, Republican state governor Kay Ivey said, “While justice could not be served tonight due to last-minute legal attempts to delay or cancel the execution, it was only right to try. My prayers go out to the victim’s children and grandchildren as they are forced to relive their tragic loss.”
November 21 Ivey he announced that all executions will be suspended pending a review of the procedure.