Alabama is first state to test nitrogen-induced execution

Alabama is first state to test nitrogen-induced execution

By Adjoa Danso


Alabama is slated to become the first state in the country to use nitrogen gas in an execution. Significantly different from lethal injection, death by “nitrogen hypoxia” forces the subject to inhale pure nitrogen gas through a fitted mask until their bodily functions slow down and their heart stops. So far, this new execution method has been approved for use in Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, though none have used it yet. That is scheduled to change on Jan. 25.

Kenneth Smith, 58, has served 35 years in prison, more than 20 of them on death row. He was scheduled to die by lethal injection in November 2022, but the execution was stalled when officials could not successfully insert an IV into Smith’s arm. After the failed attempt, Smith filed a lawsuit requesting an alternative form of execution be used: nitrogen hypoxia. Despite the suit Smith asserts he has right to challenge use of the method. Smith’s attorneys are citing the risks — seizure or permanent vegetation — if the mask is fitted poorly and oxygen flows in. If a federal appeals court sides with the state during a hearing set for Jan. 19, the Alabama Department of Corrections will execute Smith on Thursday.

The newness of nitrogen hypoxia means that little is known about how the process will work. The Alabama Department of Corrections’ execution protocol document says, “After the nitrogen gas is introduced, it will be administered for 15 minutes or five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer,” the Associated Press reports. 

Opponents of nitrogen-gas execution say there are too many variables to know whether the method is as humane as its proponents insist. On Jan. 17, Rev. Jeff Hood, who will be by Smith’s side during the execution as his spiritual adviser, requested in-room oxygen monitors and other safety measures to protect himself from nitrogen gas exposure.

The United Nations, which is against capital punishment, has called for the execution to be canceled, asserting that execution by gas “risks particular pain and suffering” and a potential violation of international law.

Smith was convicted and sentenced to death in 1988 for the murder-for-hire killing of Elizabeth Bennett. Following a successful appeal and retrial in 1996, a jury recommended life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, the judge overrode the jury, and Smith was sentenced to death for a second time.

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