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Nitrogen Execution in Alabama First in US History

Nitrogen Tanks. Alabama inmate, Kenneth Smith, is the first person in US history to undergo execution by Nitrogen gas.
Nitrogen Tanks. Alabama inmate, Kenneth Smith, was first person in US history to undergo execution by Nitrogen gas. Credit: Danielle Scott. CC BY-2.0/flickr

An inmate in Alabama has become the first person in US history to undergo execution by nitrogen gas. He was shaking violently for more than twenty minutes, according to witnesses.

Alabama has conducted the first execution of a death row prisoner in the United States using nitrogen gas, an untested method which, according to The Guardian, the prisoner’s lawyers had argued was a form of cruel and unusual punishment banned under the US Constitution.

The Independent reported that Kenneth Smith, 58, was pronounced dead at 8:25pm on Thursday at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama nearly three decades after he was convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire plot of Elizabeth Sennett.

The hitherto untested method had Smith breathing in pure nitrogen gas through a face mask to cause oxygen deprivation, with The Guardian reporting that the execution took around twenty-two minutes to complete.

The Alabama Prison Allegedly Believed Execution by Nitrogen was Humane

The prison told the newspaper that the new nitrogen method was “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised,” but eyewitness statements from reporters present in the death chamber suggested that Smith’s death was anything but humane.

According to The Independent, Smith’s spiritual adviser Reverend Jeff Hood, who witnessed the execution, told reporters at the scene that what he saw was a man “struggling for [his] life” for a staggering twenty-two minutes.

Alabama authorities allegedly insisted that the execution went as planned, claiming that the untested method would cause unconsciousness in seconds and death in minutes.
Speaking to The Independent, Reverend Hood said, “We didn’t see somebody go unconscious in 30 seconds. What we saw was minutes of someone struggling for their life.”

Alabama had already tried to execute Smith by lethal injection two years ago but officials were unable to find a vein before the state’s death warrant expired.

Ahead of the planned nitrogen execution in Alabama, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights said gassing Smith could amount to torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. They had called for it to not go ahead.

The BBC reported that Smith’s lawyers lodged a challenge with the Supreme Court, arguing that putting convicts through multiple execution attempts violates the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects against “cruel and unusual” punishment.

On Wednesday, January 24th, the justices turned down the appeal and denied Smith’s request to halt the execution. The inmate made a final appeal to the Supreme Court on Thursday, which was again rejected.

What is nitrogen hypoxia?

Nitrogen hypoxia, the cause of death in this method of execution, occurs when a high concentration of the gas is inhaled, replacing oxygen in the body. Speaking to CNN, doctor Jonathan Groner, a professor of surgery at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, said, “The process essentially disables the respiratory system.”

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