Alabama is preparing to execute a man convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher’s wife, despite a jury’s recommendation that he be sentenced to life in prison rather than death.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 57, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Thursday evening at a prison in south Alabama. Prosecutors said Smith was one of two men paid $1,000 each to kill Elizabeth Sennett on her husband’s behalf, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance.
Elizabeth Sennett was discovered dead in the couple’s home on Coon Dog Cemetery Road in Alabama’s Colbert County on March 18, 1988. According to the coroner, the 45-year-old woman was stabbed eight times in the chest and once on each side of the neck.
According to court documents, her husband, Charles Sennett Sr, pastor of the Westside Church of Christ in Sheffield, committed suicide one week after his wife’s death when the murder investigation began to focus on him as a suspect.
Smith’s final appeals focused on the state’s difficulties with intravenous lines at the last two scheduled lethal injections. One execution was carried out after a delay, and the other was called off as the state faced a midnight deadline to get the execution underway. Smith’s attorneys also raised the issue that judges are no longer allowed to sentence an inmate to death if a jury recommends a life sentence.
John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted in the slaying, was executed in 2010. “I’m sorry. I don’t ever expect you to forgive me. I really am sorry,” Parker said to the victim’s sons before he was put to death.
According to appellate court documents, Smith told police in a statement that it was, “agreed for John and I to do the murder” but that he just took items from the house to make it look like a burglary. Smith’s defense at trial said he agreed to beat up Elizabeth Sennett but that he did not intend to kill her, according to court documents.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Smith’s request to review the constitutionality of his death sentence.
Smith was convicted in 1989 after a jury voted 10-2 to recommend the death penalty, which was imposed by a judge. In 1992, his conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1996, he was retried and convicted again. This time, the jury recommended life in prison by a vote of 11-1, but a judge overruled the jury and sentenced Smith to death.
Alabama was the last state to end the practice of allowing judges to override a jury’s sentencing recommendation in death penalty cases in 2017, but the change was not retroactive and thus did not affect death row inmates like Smith.
The Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit that advocates for inmates, said that Smith stands to become the first state prisoner sentenced by judicial override to be executed since the practice was abolished.
Smith filed a lawsuit against the state, requesting that his upcoming execution be postponed due to reported problems with recent lethal injections. Smith’s attorneys cited Joe Nathan James Jr.’s execution in July, which an anti-death penalty group claimed was botched. The state denied those allegations. Last month, a federal judge dismissed Smith’s lawsuit, but warned prison officials to strictly adhere to established protocol when carrying out Thursday’s execution plan.
The state postponed the execution of inmate Alan Miller in September due to difficulty accessing his veins.
Miller claimed in a court filing that prison staff poked him with needles for more than an hour and left him hanging vertically on a gurney at one point before announcing they were stopping for the night. Prison officials stated that they stopped because they had a midnight deadline to begin the execution.