Alabama executed a convicted murderer with nitrogen gas, through a first-of-its-kind method that once again put the United States at the forefront of the capital punishment debate. The state said this Thursday, January 25, that the method would be humane, but critics called it cruel and experimental.
Authorities said Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, He was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. in an Alabama prison. after breathing pure nitrogen gas through a face mask to cause oxygen deprivation. It was the first time a new method of execution was used in the United States since lethal injection, now the most widely used method, was introduced in 1982.
The state had previously attempted to execute Smith, who He was convicted of a murder for hire in 1988, in 2022, but the lethal injection was canceled at the last minute because authorities couldn’t connect an IV.
The execution came after a last-minute legal battle in which Smith’s lawyers argued that the state was making him a test subject for an experimental execution method that could violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Federal courts rejected Smith’s attempt to block it, with the latest ruling coming Thursday night from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who along with two other liberal justices dissented, wrote: “Failing to kill Smith on his first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its ‘guinea pig’ to test a method of execution never before attempted. “The world is watching.”
What was it like to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith with a nitrogen mask?
Smith was executed in a south Alabama prison. The authorities put a respiratory mask on his face and replacing the air he breathes with pure nitrogen gas, which caused his death from lack of oxygen. It was the first use of a new execution method since the introduction four decades ago of lethal injection, now the most widely used in the United States.
Smith was strapped to a stretcher in the execution chamber, the same one where he was tied for several hours during the lethal injection attempt, and a “full-mask supplied-air respirator” was placed over his face. After being given the opportunity to make a final statement, the warden, from another room, activated the nitrogen gas. It was administered through the mask for at least 15 minutes or “five minutes after a flat indication on the electrocardiogram, whichever is longer,” according to state protocol.
In the hours before the scheduled execution, Smith met with family members and his spiritual advisoraccording to a prison spokesperson.
He ate a final meal of T-bone steak, potato croquettes, toast and egg spread with A1 meat sauce, his spiritual advisor, the Rev. Jeff Hood, said by phone.
“He is terrified of the torture that could ensue.. But he is also at peace. One of the things he told me is that it will eventually come out,” Hood said.
The State had until 6:00 a.m. on Friday, January 26 to carry out the execution.
“The eyes of the world are on this imminent moral apocalypse. Our prayer is that people don’t turn their heads. We simply cannot normalize mutual asphyxiation,” Smith and the Rev. Jeff Hood said in a statement Thursday.
The state has predicted that nitrogen gas will cause unconsciousness in seconds and death in minutes. A state prosecutor told the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that it will be “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man”. But some doctors and organizations have raised the alarm about the state’s plan.
Smith’s lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution to review claims that the new method violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and deserves greater legal scrutiny before being used on a person.
“There is little research on death from nitrogen hypoxia. When the State is considering using a novel form of execution that has never been attempted anywhere, The public has an interest in ensuring that the State has investigated the method appropriately and has established procedures to minimize the pain and suffering of the convicted person,” Smith’s attorneys wrote.
“That information is important not only for Smith, who has an additional reason to fear the stretcher, but for anyone the State seeks to execute after him using this novel method,” Sotomayor wrote.
“Twice this Court has ignored Smith’s warning that Alabama will subject him to an unconstitutional risk of pain,” Sotomayor wrote. “I sincerely hope he is not proven right a second time.”.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote a separate dissent and was joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Smith is one of two men convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett. Prosecutors said he and the other man were each paid $1,000 to kill Sennett in the name of her pastor husbandwho was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on the insurance.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall expressed confidence Wednesday that execution will be allowed to take place.
“My office is ready to continue the fight for Liz Sennett. Two courts have now rejected Smith’s claims. I continue to trust that the Supreme Court will take the side of justice and that Smith’s execution will take place”Marshall stated.
The victim’s son, Charles Sennett Jr., said in an interview with WAAY-TV that Smith “has to pay for what he has done”.
“And some of these people say: ‘Well he doesn’t need to suffer like this‘. Well, didn’t he ask mom how to suffer? said the son. “They just did it. “They stabbed her… several times.”
The Community of Sant’Egidio, a Vatican-affiliated Catholic charity based in Rome, urged Alabama not to carry out the execution, saying that the method is “barbaric” and “uncivilized” and would bring “indelible shame” to the state. And experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council have warned that they believe the execution method could violate the ban on torture.
Some states are looking for new ways to execute people because drugs used in lethal injections have become difficult to find. Three states (Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma) have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but no state has attempted to use the previously untested method.
Much of what is known about death from nitrogen gas comes from industrial accidents or suicide attempts. Dr. Philip Nitschke, a euthanasia expert who designed a suicide capsule using nitrogen gas and appeared as Smith’s expert witness, said that nitrogen can provide a peaceful, hypoxic deathbut said he is concerned about Alabama’s proposal to wear a mask.
Nitschke told The Associated Press that Smith’s facial hair, jaw movements and involuntary movements while feeling the effect of nitrogen could affect the seal. If there are leaks, Smith could still absorb enough oxygen, “to prolong what could be a slow and rather macabre process of not getting enough oxygen slowlyNitschke said. He said he could imagine scenarios in which the execution went quickly or seriously awry.
Smith’s lawyers have expressed concern that Smith could choke to death on your own vomit while nitrogen gas flows. The state made a last-minute change to procedures to say he will not be allowed to eat in the eight hours before the execution.
Sennett, 45, She was found dead on March 18, 1988 in her home with eight stab wounds to the chest. and one on each side of the neck, according to the coroner. Her husband, Charles Sennett Sr., committed suicide when the investigation focused on him as a suspect, according to court documents. John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted of the murder, was executed in 2010.