The 1988 Murder-For-Hire Of Elizabeth Sennett Sounds Straight Out Of A Movie

On November 17, 2022, as CNN reported, Alabama officials scrapped a planned execution of a condemned death row inmate at the last second after authorities were unable to find a vein for the lethal injection. It was the latest twist in a case that, in the decades since it began, has resulted in one absurd turn after another.

The condemned man's name is Kenneth Smith, and it's nearing four decades since he committed the crime for which he would ultimately be given a death sentence. All the way back in the Reagan administration — 1988, to be specific — Smith was involved in a murder-for-hire scheme. However, absolutely nothing about the case, or its adjudication, has been anywhere close to straightforward, as evidenced by the fact that, even as officials were preparing to close the final chapter on it, it remains ongoing.

The Murder Of Elizabeth Sennett

"She fought it and she fought hard." That's what Ronnie May, at the time chief investigator with the Colbert County Sheriff's Office, told in November 2022. He was referring to the day in 1988 when he came upon a murder scene. Moments earlier, a deputy had received a telephone call from a distraught man, screaming that his wife had been murdered. That man was Charles Sennett, a pastor at an area church, and the murder victim was his wife, Elizabeth. "All we knew was a pastor's wife had been killed in what had been a home invasion," May said of the scene.

Even as he was initially investigating the scene, things didn't look right, May would say. Specifically, he said it looked like it had been staged to look like a home invasion. Further still, when Charles realized that Elizabeth was still barely alive (she died at a hospital), May said he "almost fell" (per Then, May started connecting some dots: Specifically, he remembered that when he investigated a crime a few weeks earlier, Charles was there and kept returning after repeatedly being told to leave. May later concluded that Charles was inspecting the crime scene to see what it looked like so that he could recreate it.

Charles Sennett Commits Suicide

Initially, Elizabeth Sennett's murder scene looked like a run-of-the-mill home invasion. Some things — including a stereo and VCR — had been stolen, and glass had been shattered (per The Cinemaholic). Already the chief investigator, Ronnie May was beginning to have doubts that this was a simple home invasion gone wrong, and he began to wonder whether Charles Sennett might have had something to do with it (via

Police had already rounded up a suspect thanks to a CrimeStoppers tip (more on that in a moment) but still wanted to talk to Charles. There was plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing to Charles' possible involvement — he was believed to have been unhappy in his marriage, and he had reportedly taken out a life insurance policy on Elizabeth. When brought in for questioning, Charles denied everything. And when someone in the interview room wondered aloud if Charles knew one of the suspects, he "went beet red," according to May (via Charles then left the police station, went straight to his sons to admit that he had had their mother murdered, and then returned to his pickup truck and shot himself. He did not survive.

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The Suspects

As mentioned previously, suspects in the murder of Elizabeth Stennett were already in custody when Charles Stennett, the man who paid for her murder, committed suicide. According to The Cinemaholic, Charles had contacted one of his tenants — Billy Gray Williams — and agreed to pay him $3,000 to kill Elizabeth and make it look like a robbery gone bad. Williams then contacted two of his associates, John Forrest Parker and Kenneth Eugene Smith, to help with the crime.

All three would be caught, tried, and convicted. But in Smith's case, he might have been done in by his own failure to tie up any loose ends. Specifically, as mentioned previously, he had stolen a VCR from the crime scene. As CNN reported, working on an anonymous tip, authorities carried out a search warrant on his home and found the stolen VCR there.

Billy Gray Williams was sentenced to life in prison, while Parker was executed in 2010 (per Executing Smith, however, has proven to be considerably more difficult.

'Judicial Override'

Kenneth Smith was convicted of murder in 1989, and a jury at the time sentenced him to death (per the Daily Mail). However, he appealed, and he was convicted again in 1996, though this time the jury couldn't come to a unanimous verdict on whether or not to give him the death penalty. Specifically, the jury voted 11-1 in favor of the death penalty.

This is where the concept of judicial override enters the narrative. To make a long story short, Alabama and other states began experimenting with this doctrine in order to allow judges to override a verdict when it comes to death penalty cases, as Equal Justice Initiative reports. In Alabama, that means that in 112 cases, a judge overruled a jury's sentence, and in 91% of those cases — Smith's included — the judge imposed the death penalty instead of the jury's life sentence.

Alabama ditched the practice in 2017, according to the Daily Mail. However, the decision was not retroactive, meaning that Smith's death penalty still stood and stands. And in fact, the state did try to put him to death once — and failed.

Exhibit A For Botched Executions?

The state of Alabama tried, and failed, to execute Kenneth Smith on November 17, 2022, as CNN reported. He was to be put to death by lethal injection; however, authorities repeatedly failed to find a vein into which to insert the needle that would deliver the lethal drug cocktail. With time about to expire on the death warrant, officials decided to give up rather than try to sort the matter out with the clock ticking.

The Atlantic points to Smith's case as an example of Alabama's botched executions, which are themselves metaphors for botched executions in other states. "The state's incompetence at executing its prisoners in accordance with its own protocol has degenerated into a civil-rights crisis, evident in the scattered slices and punctures of three executions gone awry in a row," writes Elizabeth Bruenig, who notes that Smith himself claimed the repeated injections felt "like a knife" as authorities poked him just about everywhere in their failed attempt to find a vein.

As for Smith, it looks as if his execution is up in the air, as Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has issued what is effectively a ban on executions until further notice. Whether that means that he will die in prison of causes other than judicial execution or that executions will resume in the Yellowhammer State and he will be put to death remains uncertain.