Alabama Breaks Ground as First State Approved for Nitrogen Gas Executions

Alabama is set to make history as the first state to execute an inmate with nitrogen gas, following a federal judge’s denial of a request to stop the procedure. A top international human rights group deemed the method “alarming” and “inhuman.” 

US District Judge R. Austin Huffaker granted approval for the state to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, with a respirator-type face mask over his nose and mouth, replacing breathable air with nitrogen, leading to death from oxygen deprivation.

Smith survived a previous 2022 execution attempt by lethal injection, when the Alabama Department of Corrections halted it due to difficulties connecting intravenous lines. 

If the state proceeds, Smith will be the first in the nation to face execution by nitrogen gas. Although Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have authorized nitrogen hypoxia, none have implemented it to date.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey set a January 25 execution date for Smith, despite theoretical risks of pain and suffering under the state’s execution protocol, as acknowledged by Judge Huffaker. Smith’s attorney, Robert Grass, plans to appeal, potentially taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The execution method involves placing a mask over the inmate’s nose and mouth, replacing breathing air with nitrogen, constituting 78% of the air humans inhale. 

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Alabama Addresses Execution Challenges with Protocol Changes

alabama-breaks-ground-first-state-approved-nitrogen-gas-executions
Alabama is set to make history as the first state to execute an inmate with nitrogen gas, following a federal judge’s denial of a request to stop the procedure.

The Alabama Department of Corrections has disclosed limited details, with the proposed procedure administering nitrogen for 15 minutes or until a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer.

Uncertainty surrounds whether condemned inmates will be sedated before the nitrogen gas administration. The United Nations expressed concern over the method, deeming it a potential violation of the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett, faces execution. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall praised the decision, moving the state closer to holding Smith accountable for the crime. 

However, Smith’s spiritual adviser, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, condemned the judge’s decision, calling it a permission for the state to “suffocate its citizens.”

Alabama faced execution challenges in 2022, leading Governor Ivey to review the process. Protocol changes included extended execution time and the formation of a new execution team. 

The Department of Corrections remains tight-lipped about the team’s composition and execution compounds, despite testing the new protocols in the July 2022 execution of James Barber.

As Alabama stands on the brink of executing Kenneth Eugene Smith with nitrogen gas, questions about the ethics and humanity of capital punishment in the United States gain renewed emphasis.

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