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Alabama convicted killer waits to be executed this month by nitrogen gas

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Later this month, the state of Alabama plans to execute a man with nitrogen gas. If the execution goes forward as planned on January 25, it will be the first time that method will be used in a death chamber in the U.S. And it is also the second time Alabama will try to execute Kenneth Smith over a murder-for-hire plot in 1988. NPR's Chiara Eisner spoke with Smith about how he is preparing for what comes next.

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: When Kenny Smith called me from the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., we only had 15 minutes, and it was sometimes hard to hear him over the crackly line. But he had a lot to share about his experience when the state tried and failed to execute him by lethal injection a year and a half ago.

KENNETH SMITH: I was strapped down, couldn't catch my breath. I was shaking like a leaf. I was absolutely alone in a room full of people, and not one of them tried to help me at all, and I was crying out for help. It was a month or so before I really started to come back to myself.

EISNER: Only two people living in the United States today can say they've been through an execution and survived. Alabama stopped the execution after four hours because the workers weren't able to successfully insert a needle into Smith's vein. He said that has made waiting for this upcoming execution in January by nitrogen gas even more difficult.

SMITH: I'm still carrying the trauma from the last time. I'm being treated for PTSD, and I struggle daily. So when I got this date, my level of anxiety this time was not even close to what I faced last time. Everybody is telling me that I'm going to suffer. Well, I'm absolutely terrified.

EISNER: So Alabama has said that they're doing things differently this time. You know, they did this whole review of the process last year. Do you feel like they're doing things differently than last time? Have they fitted you for the mask? Are they telling you what's going on?

SMITH: Oh, no. They don't tell me nothing. I won't know if things are different or not until actually get around there. Yeah, I don't know. Don't put out a - what was it, a one-page statement about a review? Who reviewed it? They review their damn self (ph)? That's the fox guarding the henhouse.

EISNER: And do you know, is it going to be the same people who were with you last time?

SMITH: Of course. Oh, of course. Yeah.

EISNER: Wow.

AUTOMATED VOICE: You have one minute left.

SMITH: Yeah, we all know. We all know who they are.

EISNER: You know, I know you haven't been talking very much with the public. I just wanted to ask you if there's something that you want people to know that they don't know about what you're going through.

SMITH: Yes, ma'am. It's the mental trauma side of all of this. I've been doing time for 35 years now, and I've tried to place myself in my brothers' shoes when they're around the corner and going through this. But nothing prepares you for it. The anxiety and stuff starts building up before you ever get your date. And now that you're approaching that time, the anxiety starts to build. And, yeah, there is a mental trauma there that I never realized until I went through that.

EISNER: Smith has filed a legal challenge against the state for attempting to put him to death a second time, partly because of that trauma. His lawyers argued it's unconstitutional to allow Alabama officials to try to execute him again after they already did it once and caused him physical and psychological pain. Waiting for them to do it again is a form of torture, Smith believes, and torture is not permitted by law. The court's decision is expected soon. I reached out to the Alabama Department of Corrections to confirm that the execution workers this time would be the same as the last, and the state didn't respond.

Chiara Eisner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner is a reporter for NPR's investigations team. Eisner came to NPR from The State in South Carolina, where her investigative reporting on the experiences of former execution workers received McClatchy's President's Award and her coverage of the biomedical horseshoe crab industry led to significant restrictions of the harvest.