When Kenneth Smith first reached out to Reverend Jeff Hood to be with him during his January execution, Smith’s first question was: “Are you prepared to die to be my spiritual advisor?”
“Well, of course, that was absolutely shocking,” Hood says on the eve of Smith’s planned death. “He knew that I was intense enough or faithful enough with regard to my work that I would probably sign a waiver. I signed the waiver to show Kenny that I was committed to him.”
Smith, an Alabama inmate scheduled to be put to death Thursday evening, will be making a kind of macabre history when he enters the death chamber at William C. Holman Correctional Facility. He’ll be the first person set to be put to death by nitrogen gas, a method of execution by asphyxiation that has never been used in the United States — and Hood will be at his side throughout the untested process. “I think it’s important to say that this is the first time in human history that other people who are not being executed are at a threat of being executed,” says Hood, who claims the facility has not provided him with a safety plan. The prison did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment. “My kids are terrified. My wife is doing the best she can.”
The road to the death chamber has been a long one for Smith, who was sentenced to death in 1989 for the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett. Pastor Charles Sennett Sr. enlisted Smith, along with two others, to kill his wife at their home for her life insurance money.
Sennett killed himself soon after he was named as a suspect, while Billy Gray Williams, one of the hired hands who was not present at the murder, died in prison in 2020, and John Forrest Parker, who also participated in the killing, was executed in 2010. Smith was initially given the death penalty, but after an appeals court ordered a new trial, a jury voted for him to spend life in prison without the possibility of parole. The judge, however, overruled the jury and sentenced Smith to death 1996, a practice that’s no longer allowed in Alabama.
In 2022, Smith survived a botched attempt at execution by lethal injection, and in May of 2023, the Supreme Court denied an appeal by state officials to once again attempt to execute Smith via that method. Smith opted for lethal gas instead, even though the process had not yet been tested. Still, according to the Marshall Project, lethal injection has been in flux for decades — ever since pharmaceutical companies started declining to sell those drugs to prisons, and the horrors of botched executions began to be highlighted in the press. “I’m still suffering from the first execution and now we’re doing this again,” Smith told the Guardian of his own experience. “They won’t let me even have post-traumatic stress disorder — you know, this is ongoing stress disorder.”
Wednesday, the high court once again ruled that Smith could be put to death, this time via nitrogen gas, which his attorneys have argued could leave Smith potentially braindead or with severe physical injuries if the process is unsuccessful.
Hood met Smith after attending to a series of executions after the Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that inmates could bring spiritual advisors into the death chamber. “What’s important to me is to tell these guys that I don’t just minister to the soul, but I minister to the body as well, because I don’t believe you can separate the two,” Hood, a staunch anti-death penalty activist, says. “I tell my guys that you can’t be in the soul-saving business unless you’re in the body-saving business.”
As such, Hood has spent the last six months with Smith, preparing for that final day as well as trying to raise awareness about the untested and potentially inhumane execution method. “I know this is going to sound weird, but it’s almost like my job is to become their best friend,” he says. I’m becoming their best friend in order to be there with them as they’re murdered.”
This past week, he’s alternated between comforting Smith through bouts of vomiting and panic attacks and organizing protests. “He’s doing horrible,” he says of Smith. “He’s about to be experimented upon. But at the same time, we have worked so hard to get to this place where we are dedicated. We’re gonna fill every second with love and life, love and life, love and life, love and life.”
Thursday, Hood arrived at the prison at 8 a.m. to spend the day with Smith, who will not be allowed to eat after 10 a.m., a development Hood said he only learned about on Wednesday. Smith’s final drink and bite of food will be at 4 p.m. when he will take the Eucharist. He, his family, and Hood will then begin waiting for the execution, which will occur at some time after 6 p.m. Hood has not been given a time. “We’ll certainly pray together,” he says. “Then he’ll be strapped to the gurney. I’ll go in and anoint his head with oil. By the time they come and get me next, I’ll be going back into the chamber and he’ll have the mask on at that point.”
Hood voiced his concerns about his safety — and that of the attending guard — as a gas leak could go undetected due to the toxic nature of nitrogen and its odorless, colorless properties.
Sennett’s family also plan to be at the execution, which carries a far different meaning for them than Hood. “Why should we have to suffer?” Elizabeth’s son Charles Sennett told local news. “And some of these people out there say, ‘Well, he doesn’t need to suffer like that.’ Well, he didn’t ask Mama how to suffer? They just did it. They stabbed her multiple times. I’m sure if I were in the same situation, I would be appealing my butt off too. But I think the appeals are done. Everything is done. I don’t know what else you can appeal for.”
Hood seems to share that final sentiment at least. “Hope dies last,” he says. “But I’m not feeling super hopeful right now.”
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