Kenneth Eugene Smith is scheduled to be executed by the state of Alabama on January 25, 2024. Smith was hired by the husband of the woman he murdered. At the time of her murder, she had two sons. 

Her husband, Rev. Charles Sennett, who was a pastor, committed suicide a week after she was murdered. He was having an affair and was deeply in debt. He took an extensive life insurance policy out on his wife before the murder. 

Three men were implicated: John Forrest Parker, who was executed in 2010; Billy Gray Williams, who was sentenced to life without parole; and Smith. Each was paid $1,000 for the murder

Having worked as a mental health manager in the men’s maximum security prison, which houses “Death Row” in Texas, our department was tasked with providing mental health services for offenders sentenced to death. The case in Alabama highlights some of my lingering questions about the use of the death penalty and the more significant issues surrounding its continued practice. As of 2022, the death penalty is still legal in twenty-seven states. 

My first concern involves the families of victims. I can empathize with the children and other family members who have faced such tragedies. In 1976, less than two years after we were married, my wife’s only two brothers were senselessly murdered. 

I know how such tragedies can rip a family apart and create wounds that might never heal. One of those wounds is connected to the time it can take to get “justice” and some sense of closure. 

The simple reality is that no matter what happens to those convicted of the murder, at the end of the ordeal, the person who was loved and lost is still gone. In their place is a horrific mental picture of a dead parent. In the Alabama case, the murder was made to look like a home invasion, and the deceased was repeatedly stabbed. 

Ask the family and they can tell you exactly how long this slow walk to justice has gone on– about 36 years to date. 

This experience underscores an often neglected feature of our justice system. When such horrific events happen, the victim’s family and the murderer are connected in the worst kind of relationship, one that only ends when the perpetrator is no longer alive.

Smith is reported to have gone through two trials. In the first trial, the jury sentenced him to death. The second trial, in 1996, had one juror vote against the death penalty. The judge overruled the decision of the jury and reinstated the death sentence. 

The first attempted execution in November of 2022 was unsuccessful because the attending officials could not find a vein and forty-five minutes later, gave up. 

What has revived media attention to the impending second attempt is the decision to execute Smith by use of nitrogen hypoxia. Smith initially recommended this method. When the state agreed, he changed his mind. 

My second question revolves around the continued use of the death penalty. Is such an action really necessary? States like Texas are moving away from the death penalty due to the cost of executions. 

Life without parole appears to be cheaper in the long run. In Texas, it is estimated to cost around twenty-two thousand dollars a year to house a death-row offender. However, the prisons are toxic, which takes a toll on all those who work and “live” there.

Evil is never really locked away. Like an unrepaired sewage pipe, the darkness seeps into everything. 

Prisons are dark places of disrespect and punitive discipline, often devoid of the essentials to make life worth living. This toxic environment profoundly impacts security officers, their families and other prison employees. 

My third concern is rooted in criminal justice practices in Texas. At the prison where I served, there was a disproportionate skewing of the prison population along racial lines. During my years at the Texas prison, 11.8% of the state’s population outside of the prison system was African American. In prison, they made up half.

Why the disparity? In a nutshell, the Texas criminal justice system is not just. People of color have fewer choices for representation in the court system. 

I used that personal experience to challenge young, non-white offenders. My words were not comforting. 

“In the legal system in Texas, you have little value. You will not get great attorneys, you will not get friendly judges and prosecutors often give harsher sentences to people of color than to those who are white.”

I refuse to give tacit approval to the practice of the death penalty because I have seen miscarriages of justice, poor representation, uneven sentencing and ultimately, uneven death sentences. Currently, 45.6% of death row offenders in Texas are African American, 27.8% are Hispanic and 25% are identified as white. 

My fourth concern has stemmed from working with offenders, now called inmates, some of whom were very dangerous men without guilt, shame or empathy. In dealing with these people, I have reluctantly realized that some people forfeit their right to live in the community. 

When someone is born, they have the right to exist. However, as the person develops, matures and ages, that right transitions into a privilege. To violate the basic rules of society and kill another person, in my view, is to forfeit the privilege of living free in our society.  

  However, while working in the prison, I kept two enduring beliefs at the forefront of my mind and heart. The first was an acknowledgment that “I will not meet or work with anyone today whom God does not love.” The other was, “I will not meet or work with anyone today for whom Christ has not died.”

In this broken world, the efforts to do justice and love mercy will not always be clear-cut. In those times, a profound humility of heart is required.  

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