ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — The state of Alabama executed a convicted murderer using nitrogen gas, making history by employing a first-of-its-kind method. This raised concerns and invited extensive debate over the practice of capital punishment. The state argued that the use of nitrogen gas would be humane, while critics labeled it as cruel and experimental.
58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. at an Alabama prison after being administered pure nitrogen gas through a face mask to induce oxygen deprivation. The execution marked the first time a new method had been used in the United States since the introduction of lethal injection in 1982.
The entire process of the execution lasted about 22 minutes, during which Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes. Following that, he appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney, sometimes pulling against the restraints for at least two minutes. This was followed by several minutes of heavy breathing, until breathing was no longer perceptible.
In a final statement, Smith addressed the act as a step backward for humanity and expressed love and peace. He made the “I love you sign” with his hands towards his family members who were present as witnesses.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey expressed that the execution was a form of justice for the murder-for-hire killing of 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett in 1988. Ivey’s statement referred to the long, arduous process of bringing Smith to face the consequences of his actions. The state had previously attempted to execute Smith in 2022, but the lethal injection was called off at the last minute due to technical difficulties.
The execution came after a last-minute legal battle in which Smith’s attorneys contended that the state was using him as a test subject for an experimental execution method that could violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Federal courts rejected Smith’s bid to block it, with the U.S. Supreme Court also ruling against halting the execution. The majority justices did not issue any statements along with their verdict.
The use of nitrogen gas as an execution method has raised concerns from medical experts and human rights organizations. Some argued that there is little research on death by nitrogen hypoxia, and that using a method never attempted before requires careful research to minimize the pain and suffering of the condemned person.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented from the majority ruling, expressed concern over Alabama selecting Smith as its ‘guinea pig’ to test a new method of execution, one that had never been attempted before. She emphasized that the protocols around the execution have been kept secretive, and there was a lack of transparency about the process.
The execution by nitrogen gas marks an unprecedented use of a death penalty method in the United States. The debate surrounding the humanity and constitutionality of such execution methods is expected to continue as states explore alternative methods to lethal injections due to challenges in obtaining the necessary drugs.