Martin Luther King, Jr., AL’s Death Penalty & Kenneth Smith

Martin Luther King, Jr., AL’s Death Penalty & Kenneth Smith December 12, 2023

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Jeremiah Reeves, Martin Luther King, Jr. & Kenneth Smith: On Alabama’s Death Penalty


Death is different.  I’ve heard various manifestations of the phrasing…but the message remains the same…when talking about a life one should always exercise extreme caution.  The State of Alabama has a long history of doing the opposite.  It’s almost as if the motto of Alabama is kill first and ask questions…if at all…later.  From the tyranny of lynching (at least 300 from 1877 to 1943) to the absurdity of modern execution processes (unequally applied and erroneously carried out), Alabama doesn’t care…as long as it gets to kill.  Whether they realize it or not, Alabamians have always had the blood of their fellow citizens on their hand.


Recently, I was asked to serve as the spiritual advisor for Alabamian Kenneth Smith, who after surviving a botched execution nearly a year ago is now scheduled to be executed by the untested means of nitrogen hypoxia on January 25, 2024.  How does one speak to the absurdity of such injustice?  When words fall short, I look to spiritual giants from the past.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice often rises above the rest.


On Easter Sunday 1958, Dr. King addressed a crowd of over two thousand people in front of the Alabama State Capitol, who had gathered to protest the recent execution of Jeremiah Reeves nine days earlier, for the rape of a white woman many years prior.  In the following paragraphs, I will juxtapose the moral catastrophe that is the impending execution of Kenneth Smith with the words Dr. King used (bold and in italics) to respond to the execution of Jeremiah Reeves in his day.

Dr. King’s entire address is here.


“… the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice.”


There is little doubt that Kenneth Smith participated in a heinous crime, the contract killing of Elizabeth Sennett.  Though Smith has repeatedly apologized for his crime, it doesn’t change the fact that Sennett’s life was brutally extinguished.  So, where does one go from there?  Do you just kill Smith or do you engage other factors?  What about mitigating circumstances like Smith’s age and difficult childhood?  What about the fact that the jury overwhelming (11-1) voted for Smith to receive a life sentence and was overruled by a judge?  What about all of the prejudices that surrounded the notoriety of the crime?  What about the fact that the State of Alabama spent hours trying to kill Smith by lethal injection and failed right at a year ago?  What about the fact that nitrogen hypoxia is an untested method of execution?  What about the wild disparities concerning those who get the death penalty…some killers do and some killers get out in 5 years?  What if it was your kid?  Is the best way to deal with a murderer to become one?  Is it always a bad example to our children to kill someone?  What about the statistical truth that the death penalty does nothing to deter crime?  What about…?  The questions concerning the death penalty are endless and it always constitutes an injustice because it is never a fair penalty…because of the fallibility of the people who give it and ultimately carry it out.  Such truths are what makes the death penalty an injustice.  Dr. King’s statements are timeless.  There will never be anything just about executing Kenneth Smith…regardless of your feelings about the crime that he committed.


“This is not a political issue: it is ultimately a moral issue. It is a question of the dignity of man.  In the name of God, in the interest of human dignity and for the interest of human dignity and for the cause of democracy, we appeal to these thousands to gird their courage, to speak out and act on their basic convictions.”


While Dr. King was speaking specifically about the ways in which African Americans were being treated in his day, it is important to point out that basic human dignity is not a political question…it is a moral one…that speaks to all of us.  We are all created in the image of God.  What gives any of us the right to choose who lives or dies?  Kenneth Smith is a child of God.  Regardless of what he did, there is no greater evil than to destroy one of God’s children.  Our inclinations to have a death penalty speak to precisely why we shouldn’t have one.  We mustn’t allow our demand for justice to destroy any semblance of morality within us.  Our fight is not against flesh and blood…most often it is against our reckless desires.


“Let us go away devoid of bitterness…”


We don’t have to carry bitterness.  We can learn to forgive.  Kenneth Smith can be an instrument of grace for all of us.  We can let him live.  We can watch what God can do in both Smith and all the rest of us.  Surely mercy is too precious an instrument to simply ignore…  We can be so much better than accepting our government-assigned position as murderers.


“On the one hand, Easter reminds us that there is something wrong with human nature and human history. It reminds us that man is separated from God and separated from his brother, which leads to the tradegy of Good Friday. On the other hand it reminds us that God is in Christ seeking to reconcile the world unto himself.


There is something wrong with Kenneth Smith.  The tyranny of sin that exists in him is the tyranny of sin that exists in all of us.  We are separated from each other…and from ourselves.  However, the message of God is one of reconciliation.  We cannot be reconciled to that which we kill.  We must do all that we can to keep the hope of love alive.  Surely life is difficult enough without creating more destruction…


“It reminds us that God ultimately rules history. So Easter is a day of hope. It is a day that says to us that the forces of evil and injustice cannot survive. Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again.”


I believe that the death penalty’s days are numbered.  Evil and injustice cannot live forever.  Truth and justice will prevail.  I just pray that it is in time for Kenneth Smith.


Will you sign the petition to help me save the life of Kenneth Smith?

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