USA TODAY – Alabama is on track to become the first state to execute an inmate with nitrogen gas later this month after a federal judge denied a request Wednesday to stop the procedure, which a top international human rights group called “alarming” and “inhuman.”
U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker granted the state permission to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith with the new method. The state plans to put a respirator-type face mask over his nose and mouth to replace breathable air with nitrogen, causing him to die from lack of oxygen.
Smith, 58, previously survived a previous execution attempt by lethal injection in 2022, but the Alabama Department of Corrections stopped it when authorities couldn’t connect two intravenous lines. He would be the first inmate to die by nitrogen gas in the nation if the state moves forward.
Three states — Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma — have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method but none have used it so far.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced a Jan. 25 execution date for Smith using nitrogen hypoxia. Huffaker said there are theoretical risks of pain and suffering under Alabama’s execution protocol but those risks don’t rise to an unconstitutional violation.
“Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett in Colbert County, Alabama. Charles Sennett Sr., Elizabeth’s husband, recruited Billy Gray Williams to murder his wife. Williams in turn recruited Smith and John Forrest Parker to assist. Smith and Parker stabbed Elizabeth Sennett to death at her home. – WIKIPEDIA
“Smith is not guaranteed a painless death,” he said.
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.
Nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method
Nitrogen makes up 78% of the air inhaled by humans and is harmless when inhaled with proper levels of oxygen. The only description the Alabama Department of Corrections has given of the process is in a heavily redacted court document.
Under the proposed procedures, a mask would be placed over the inmate’s nose and mouth and their breathing air would be replaced with nitrogen, depriving them of the oxygen needed to stay alive …
“Well I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.” – Detective Harry Callahan