Alabama Set to Execute Inmate Using Nitrogen Gas for First Time After Supreme Court Rejects Appeal

Alabama set to carry out first US execution using untested nitrogen gas method, drawing global criticism over potential for cruel and inhumane treatment.

Emmanuel Abara Benson
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Alabama Set to Execute Inmate Using Nitrogen Gas for First Time After Supreme Court Rejects Appeal

Alabama Set to Execute Inmate Using Nitrogen Gas for First Time After Supreme Court Rejects Appeal

Alabama is poised to soon become the first to carry out the nation's first execution using nitrogen gas on Tuesday, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a last-minute appeal from the condemned inmate, Kenneth Eugene Smith. The 58-year-old was convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of Elizabeth Sennett, a pastor's wife.

Smith's attorneys had filed an appeal arguing that the untested execution method of nitrogen hypoxia could constitute "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment." However, U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker ruled that while Smith is not "guaranteed a painless death," there is insufficient research to suggest the method is "substantially likely to cause Smith superadded pain short of death or a prolonged death."

The planned execution has drawn global criticism, with United Nations experts urging U.S. authorities to halt the procedure, warning it may subject Smith to "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or even torture." Nitrogen hypoxia involves forcing the prisoner to breathe pure nitrogen gas until they eventually suffocate.

Smith narrowly survived a botched lethal injection execution attempt in November 2022, becoming one of only two people in the U.S. to survive such an ordeal. His lawyers contend that the new gassing protocol likely violates the Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments."

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall stated that the court's rejection of Smith's "speculative claims" removes an obstacle to "finally seeing justice done." The state carried out the nation's first nitrogen gas execution earlier this year, which drew criticism from experts questioning the method's effectiveness and humaneness.

Why this matters: The case highlights ongoing controversies surrounding capital punishment methods in the United States. As states grapple with challenges in obtaining lethal injection drugs, some are turning to alternative protocols like nitrogen hypoxia, despite concerns over their untested nature and potential for causing undue suffering.

In response to the planned execution, three of the largest U.S. suppliers of medical-grade nitrogen - Airgas, Air Products, and Matheson Gas - have taken steps to back prevent their products from being used for capital punishment. Matheson Gas stated that producing nitrogen for executions was "not consistent with our company values." As the debate over humane execution methods continues, the fate of Kenneth Eugene Smith hangs in the balance, with Alabama on the verge of an unprecedented execution using nitrogen gas.

Key Takeaways

  • Alabama carried out the 1st nitrogen gas execution, despite concerns over the method.
  • Condemned inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith's appeal rejected by U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Nitrogen hypoxia involves forcing prisoners to suffocate on pure nitrogen gas.
  • 3 major nitrogen suppliers refuse to provide gas for executions, citing ethical concerns.
  • Debate continues over humane execution methods as states seek alternatives to lethal injection.