Alabama is set to carry out the nation’s first execution using nitrogen gas later this month, after a federal judge rejected an inmate’s request to stop the new method that his lawyers criticize as cruel and experimental.
What is nitrogen gas execution?
Nitrogen gas execution, also known as nitrogen hypoxia, is a method of capital punishment that involves replacing breathable air with nitrogen, causing the inmate to die from lack of oxygen. Three states — Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but none has used it so far.
Alabama adopted nitrogen gas as an alternative execution method in 2018, after facing difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs and carrying out executions. The state’s plans call for placing a respirator-type face mask over the inmate’s nose and mouth to deliver the nitrogen gas.
Who is the inmate facing execution?
The inmate facing execution is Kenneth Eugene Smith, now 58, who was one of two men convicted of the murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher’s wife in 1988. Prosecutors said Smith and the other man were each paid $1,000 to kill Elizabeth Sennett on behalf of her husband, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance.
Smith survived the state’s previous attempt to execute him by lethal injection in 2022, when the authorities could not connect the two intravenous lines required to administer the drugs. Smith then chose nitrogen gas as his preferred method of execution, as allowed by the state law.
Why did the federal judge allow the execution?
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker denied Smith’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop his scheduled Jan. 25 execution by nitrogen hypoxia. Smith’s attorneys had argued that the new execution protocol is riddled with unknowns and potential problems that violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
However, the judge ruled that Smith had not shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of his claims, and that the state had a strong interest in enforcing its criminal judgments. The judge also noted that Smith had voluntarily opted for nitrogen gas over lethal injection, and that he had not presented any evidence that nitrogen gas would cause him more pain or suffering than lethal injection.
What are the reactions to the judge’s decision?
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall praised the judge’s decision, saying it moves the state closer to “holding Kenneth Smith accountable for the heinous murder-for-hire slaying” he was convicted of committing. “Smith has avoided his lawful death sentence for over 35 years, but the court’s rejection today of Smith’s speculative claims removes an obstacle to finally seeing justice done,” his statement added.
Smith’s attorney, Robert Grass, said he will appeal the decision, but declined further comment. The question of whether the execution can ultimately proceed could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Smith’s case has also drawn attention from death penalty opponents and human rights groups, who have raised concerns about the lack of scientific and medical data on the effects of nitrogen gas on humans, and the risk of botched executions and suffocation.