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I’m a Spiritual Advisor for Condemned Men. Alabama’s Next Execution Could Kill Me, Too.

Alabama plans to execute Kenneth Smith next month by suffocating him with nitrogen. But the new method is untested—since I’m supposed to be in the room with Kenny when he dies, the state has warned me I might die too.

Florida Department of Corrections / Wikimedia Commons

I accompanied four men to their executions this year. Scott Eizember’s in January. Arthur Brown’s in March. Anthony Sanchez’s in September. And Casey McWhorter’s last month. In each situation, I was desperate to stop the killing. And in each case, I failed. If I measured my work by society’s standards, I would be a terrible spiritual advisor. I haven’t saved one person this year, although I have been a part of successful campaigns in the past. But Jesus’s story always turns my perception of success on its head. Jesus was, after all, unable to stop his own execution, as well as the awful executions of his followers. Jesus only swore this: “I will never leave you nor forsake you[…]even until the end of the age.” So I make the same promise in my work, too—even as the next execution I must prepare for could cost me my life. 

It is my job to advocate for the body and soul of all whom I work with. My mission is to stop the execution—but also to spiritually prepare the person to die should the event go ahead. The juxtaposition of these efforts can sometimes be confusing. But in a society addicted to killing, it is the work to which I am called. I try to stay hopeful in all things. But I must be present no matter what comes.

The work is heartbreaking. The pained faces of the guys I’ve lost rest in my brain. Just this year, there were Scott’s odd colors, Arthur’s stiff muscles, Anthony’s painful contortions, and Casey’s exposed teeth. There are also well over a dozen other men that I’ve accompanied in previous years. I see them all, and I see them all the time. 

My job is to knit my soul together with these guys. Most of the time, such efforts end with that bond violently ripped apart by an execution. But I am convinced Jesus walks with me in this work. There has to be the presence of something much greater than myself—that’s the only way I would have the strength to continue.

The enormity of the work is essential to note if I’m going to speak to the grave present moment I find myself in. You see, several years ago, the state of Alabama decided that it wasn’t able to kill people fast or effectively enough by lethal injection due to constant procedural and technical delays. So, state officials decided they were going to pursue a new form of execution using nitrogen hypoxia. In other words, they plan to pump pure nitrogen into condemned people’s lungs to suffocate them to death. Though such a method has never been tried, the state of Alabama insists it’s safe and humane. Numerous other experts disagree.

Due to the breadth of my experiences, I was asked to accompany Kenneth Smith to his execution on January 25. Of course, my work begins with trying to stop the person from dying at all. I work wherever, whenever, and however I can to make society understand the person they are trying to kill is human and what they are about to do is murder. I lead prayers. I organize campaigns. I write articles. I engage the press. I march the streets. I create events. In Kenny’s case, I sued the state last week.

As with all these situations, I have to prepare for the worst. But now, the worst could quite literally kill me.

Nitrogen hypoxia execution doesn’t just endanger the condemned—it threatens everyone in the room, since people generally can’t detect they’re breathing the gas until it’s too late. While I was aware of such danger, I haven’t taken it all that seriously until now. When Kenny’s friends contacted me about being his spiritual advisor, I knew I was being asked to do something dangerous. I’d read the reports of the consequences of a potential leak. Kenny didn’t mince words either and basically asked if I was prepared to die to do this. 

If that wasn’t enough to make me pause, I also read the waiver the state of Alabama expected me to sign, which warned me I can be exposed to the gas if something goes wrong. The state wants me to remain at least three feet away from Smith as a result, even though my job—anointing men with oil and administering their last rites—generally requires me to lay my hands on someone as they die. 

Even with all this information, I didn’t hesitate. Maybe I should have. I have a family that relies on me. I have other guys on death row throughout the country who depend on me as well. These thoughts could have rambled around in my head forever if I let them. So I don’t. These executions take enough toll without placing me in mortal danger. 

God has called me to be present with those that our society has decided to murder. If I turned back now, I would be a failure at something I can’t stomach: being human.

For now, I’m still getting to know Kenny Smith. Unlike any other person I’ve worked with, Kenny has been through all this before. Just over a year ago, Kenny was the victim of a botched execution. To say that he was put through hell is an understatement. Kenny’s death warrant expired while authorities were stabbing him with needles to find a usable vein to inject deadly toxins into his body. Can you imagine being poked and prodded like that for hours on end? Despite it all, he fights through anxiety and depression to make the most of whatever life he has left. The courage he shows each day is remarkable. I feel honored he chose me to accompany him on his journey.

God draws us to strange places. If we are to find truth in such areas, we must be willing to sit for a while and be present. While grief is important, it must not define us. We will not be able to fix everything. But we can be present. We can transform society by being willing to feel vulnerable, take risks, and be human. Perhaps Kenny Smith will be saved. Perhaps he will die. I have no idea what will come next. I just know I’ll be there.