In a historic and controversial move, the state of Alabama conducted its first execution using nitrogen gas, marking a significant departure from traditional methods. Kenneth Eugene Smith, convicted for a 1988 murder, became the first person in the United States to undergo this untested form of execution since its introduction in 1982.
Smith was pronounced dead at 8:25 pm local time on Thursday after inhaling nitrogen gas through a face mask, causing oxygen deprivation. The process, lasting about 22 minutes, drew attention as Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes, exhibiting signs of distress, including shaking and heavy breathing, before ceasing to breathe altogether.
"This execution method is untested and unproven," remarked Robin Maher, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, highlighting the lack of precedent both nationally and internationally. Smith's previous failed execution attempt in November 2022, due to complications in administering lethal injection, added to the apprehension surrounding this unprecedented procedure.
Despite concerns raised by human rights advocates, including the United Nations, Alabama proceeded with the execution, defending it as a potentially humane alternative to lethal injection. However, critics argue that the lack of sedation in Alabama's protocol for nitrogen asphyxiation raises ethical questions, particularly considering the sedative practices recommended even for euthanizing animals.
Smith's case, intertwined with a murder-for-hire scheme involving Elizabeth Sennett in 1988, saw him and his accomplice, John Parker, convicted for their roles in the crime. While Parker was executed by lethal injection in 2010, Smith faced the unique prospect of death by nitrogen gas, a method that has reignited debates surrounding capital punishment in the United States.
Despite ongoing appeals, including a plea to the US Supreme Court, which was denied without comment, Smith's execution underscores the enduring divide over the death penalty in American society. Recent polling data indicates a declining support for capital punishment, with 53 percent of Americans favoring it for murder convictions, the lowest level in nearly five decades.
As Alabama becomes one of the few states to adopt nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, questions of its legality, morality, and efficacy persist, echoing broader discussions on the future of the death penalty in the United States.