An execution was halted late Thursday and the prisoner sent back to his cell after his Alabama jailers said they ran out of time trying to find a vein. The state now has to seek a death warrant for a new date.
Kenneth Smith, 57, had been scheduled to die for his role in the murder for hire of a preacher’s wife in 1988. But last-minute legal appeals meant the state didn’t get the go-ahead until after 10 p.m.
Around 11:20 p.m., the execution was called off “due to the time constraints resulting from the lateness of the court’s proceedings,” the corrections department said in a statement. The department’s commissioner, John Hamm, said prison employees had tried unsuccessfully several times to set an intravenous line for the lethal injection.
It was the second time in as many months that Alabama failed to carry out an execution before the expiration of a death warrant, and it highlights critics’ questions about the state’s ability to adhere to its own death penalty protocol.
At issue in the last-minute appeal was the fact that Smith’s trial jury had voted 11-1 to impose a life sentence and was overruled by a judge who opted for a death sentence. Alabama has since repealed the practice of judicial override in sentencing.
Smith was one of two men hired to kill Elizabeth Sennett, a 45-year-old mother and the wife of minister Charles Sennett. He was having an affair and had taken an insurance policy out on his wife so he could pay off his debts. Charles Sennett approached his tenant Billy Gray Williams about having her killed, and Williams paid Parker and Smith $1,000 each to do it.
On March 18, 1988, the woman was fatally stabbed in her family’s home on Coon Dog Cemetery Road in Alabama’s Colbert County.
Charles Sennett killed himself a week later, as the investigation began to focus on him. An anonymous tip led investigators to Smith’s home, where they found a videocassette recorder taken from the Sennetts.
Smith’s defense at trial said he participated in the attack but he did not intend to kill her, according to court documents.
Parker, the other man convicted in the slaying, was executed in 2010. Williams, the middleman, is serving life in prison without possibility of parole.
Alabama in 2017 became the last U.S. state in 2017 to repeal judicial override, which allowed judges to disregard a jury’s decision for either life or death in capital cases. The new law, however, was not retroactive for inmates like Smith.
The failure to carry out Smith’s execution Thursday closely mirrored the state’s failed attempt in September to put to death Alan Eugene Miller. No new date has been set for Miller, who is fighting the execution order.
Then, too, Hamm blamed the flurry of court proceedings at the eleventh hour, saying the “condemned’s veins could not be accessed in accordance with our protocol before the expiration of the death warrant.”
Both failed execution attempts come on the heels of the death of Joe Nathan James, whom the state put to death in July in an execution that has since become heavily scrutinized, after a report in The Atlantic said a private autopsy showed James “suffered a long death.” Corrections officials had cut into James’ skin to find a vein to set an IV line.
“The attempted execution of Kenneth Smith last night is the last in a series of executions and attempted executions that demonstrate failures in Alabama’s ability to implement the death penalty consistent with its protocols and constitutional values,” Ngozi Ndulue, the deputy director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said in a Friday statement to CNN.
Ndulue took particular issue with the “secrecy with which Alabama conducts executions,” saying it “allows this pattern to continue with the only public scrutiny coming from litigation and post-execution autopsies.”
In the hours before the execution was scheduled to be carried out, the prison system said Smith visited with his attorney and family members, including his wife. He ate cheese curls and drank water, but declined the prison breakfast offered to him.
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