Alabama Executes Inmate Through Novel Method of Nitrogen Gas Asphyxiation

Alabama carried out the execution of Kenneth Smith, a convicted murderer, on Thursday, utilizing nitrogen gas as the method of capital punishment. This marks the inaugural application of this new approach, which the state positions as a more straightforward alternative to lethal injections, referring to it as “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man.”

Despite objections from United Nations human rights experts and Smith’s legal representatives, who argued that the method was both risky and experimental, the state proceeded. Concerns were raised about the potential for a torturous death or non-fatal injury resulting from this untested form of execution.

Kenneth Smith, found guilty of a 1988 murder-for-hire, stood out as a rare inmate who had previously survived an execution attempt. In November 2022, Alabama officials had to abandon his lethal injection execution after struggling for hours to insert a needle into his body for the intravenous line.

During Smith’s second and final visit to the execution chamber last Thursday, he was secured on a gurney while a commercial industrial-safety respirator mask was strapped to his face. Connected to the mask was a canister of pure nitrogen, which, upon release, deprived him of oxygen.

The execution commenced at 7:53 p.m. (0153 GMT Friday), and Smith was officially declared dead at 8:25 p.m. (0225 GMT), as reported by prison officials.

Smith Displayed Consciousness and Writhe on Gurney for Minutes

Witnessed by five journalists through glass as media observers, Smith appeared to maintain consciousness for several minutes after the activation of nitrogen. Observers reported that he started shaking and writhing on the gurney for about two minutes, followed by deep breathing for several minutes. Eventually, his breathing slowed and became imperceptible.

Contrary to Alabama officials’ expectations outlined in court filings, wherein they anticipated Smith being rendered unconscious in under a minute and dying shortly after, the witnessed events unfolded differently. When questioned about the unexpected writhing during a press conference, Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm remarked, “It appeared that Smith was holding his breath as long as he could. He struggled against the restraints a little bit, but it’s an involuntary movement and some agonal breathing. So that was all expected.”

Prior to the activation of nitrogen, Smith delivered a lengthy final statement, beginning with the words, “Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step backward.” In the presence of his wife and other relatives, he gestured towards them, expressing, “I’m leaving with love, peace, and light,” as recounted by media witnesses.

Supreme Court without Specifying a Reason Rejected Injunction

Smith pursued legal avenues in federal courts, contending that Alabama’s chosen method constituted unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, he fell short of meeting the stringent criteria required to compel a judge to delay his execution.

His legal team expressed concerns to the courts, emphasizing worries that the mask might not form a proper seal on Smith’s face, potentially allowing oxygen infiltration. This could postpone or prevent the onset of unconsciousness, posing a risk of severe brain injury. They suggested alternatives, such as using a hood pre-filled with pure nitrogen or opting for a firing squad.

Additionally, Smith’s lawyers informed the courts that he had been consistently vomiting as the execution approached. They raised apprehensions that he might become sick after the mask was secured, risking choking on his own vomit.

In response to these concerns, prison officials took preventive measures, serving Smith his final meal on Thursday morning and restricting solid foods after 10 a.m.

Despite Smith’s final attempt to secure a delay through legal channels, the conservative majority of the US Supreme Court rejected his plea, leading to the commencement of the execution shortly thereafter. While the court did not provide a detailed rationale for denying Smith’s appeal, three liberal justices expressed their dissents in written statements.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, among the dissenting voices, wrote, “Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its ‘guinea pig’ to test a method of execution never attempted before. The world is watching.”

Despite Boycott from Pharmaceutical Companies, Asphyxiation is Executed in Other States

U.S. states employing capital punishment are facing increasing challenges in procuring drugs for lethal injections. This difficulty arises, in part, from pharmaceutical companies refusing to supply these drugs to prisons due to a European trade ban on goods intended for use in torture or executions.

Oklahoma and Mississippi lawmakers have also endorsed nitrogen-asphyxiation execution protocols in recent years, although they have not yet been implemented.

Kenneth Smith, convicted of the murder of Elizabeth Sennett, a preacher’s wife, received a death sentence after he and an accomplice accepted a $1,000 fee from her husband to carry out the killing, as revealed in trial testimony. Despite 11 out of 12 jurors voting for a life sentence, an Alabama judge overturned their recommendation using a law that has since been deemed unconstitutional.

During the execution, several of Sennett’s relatives were present and spoke to the media afterward, expressing forgiveness towards Sennett’s killers. It’s a bittersweet day; we’re not going to be jumping around, whooping and hollering, hooraying and all that, that’s not us. We’re glad this day is over.” 

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