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AP reporter witnesses first state execution using nitrogen gas

Anti-death penalty signs placed by activists stand along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., ahead of the scheduled execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. On Thursday, Alabama put Smith to death with nitrogen gas. AP PHOTO / KIM CHANDLER

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KIM CHANDLER

Over the last two decades, AP reporter Kim Chandler has seen more than a dozen executions in Alabama and has closely followed the state’s struggles to administer capital punishment, making her a leading expert when corrections officials decided to be the first in the nation to adopt a previously untested execution method.

Alabama officials opted to use nitrogen gas to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith, a prisoner who had been convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, a preacher’s wife.

Chandler was ideally suited to explain the story and its implication to a global audience. Her two decades of covering executions have allowed her to cultivate valuable sources and develop deep knowledge of the subject.

In the week leading up to the execution, Chandler, who is based in Montgomery, covered the last-minute legal fighting, and produced explainers for both text and video.

Her set-up story on the day of the execution was thorough and informative, and when the execution was completed, she provided key eyewitness details of Smith’s convulsions on the gurney.

Working on only a few hours of sleep, Chandler did a video debrief of what she had seen the next day, wrote an eyewitness account of the execution itself and covered a news conference where the state attorney general vowed to help other states use the new method.

Chandler and Oklahoma’s Sean Murphy already had anticipated the story would move in that direction and collaborated for a weekend piece looking at whether other death penalty states would begin to use nitrogen gas for executions.

In addition to her many text stories and the video standups, Chandler shot photos outside the prison before the execution and of the victim’s family speaking at a news conference after.

Chandler’s coverage was among the most-viewed stories on AP News for the week. Her spot story had more than a half-million page views, making it the week’s third-most viewed story. Her first-person account had more than 115,000 page views and a 99-engagement score, while her next-day coverage had more than 140,000 page views and a 100-engagement score.

Although state officials said everything had gone according to plan, the invaluable accounts provided by Kim and other media witnesses informed the world that Smith had convulsed for several minutes in an execution that took 22 minutes to complete.

Critics around the world cited those accounts in their reactions to the execution, with a White House spokesperson calling it “very troubling” during a press briefing the next day.

As Alabama looks to move forward with more nitrogen gas executions and other states may turn toward this method, Chandler’s reporting will no doubt be cited in legal filings in the months and years to come.

For bravely serving as a witness and describing and explaining in detail a new execution method and its implications for the future, Chandler earns Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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