(NationalUSNews.com) — Alabama prison officials recently used nitrogen gas in an execution, marking the first instance of a prisoner dying from nitrogen hypoxia. According to firsthand accounts, inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith struggled for several minutes during his execution, which used the newly developed and untested nitrogen gas method. Smith is the first inmate on Earth executed by nitrogen hypoxia, causing the controversial incident to receive international attention. Smith’s death also caused a renewed call for humane execution methods due to the eyewitness descriptions of his execution.
Authorities initially arrested Smith in 1988 for the murder of Elizabeth Sennet, a 45-year-old woman. Smith agreed to kill Sennet for another person, who paid him $1,000. Smith stood trial for Sennet’s murder in 1996, with the jury returning an 11-to-1 recommendation for a life sentence. Rather than agreeing to put Smith in prison for life, the judge overseeing the murder trial instead elected to sentence Smith to death for Sennet’s murder, a judicial procedure outlawed in modern-day Alabama.
After spending over 20 years on death row, Alabama prison officials attempted to execute Smith in November 2022. Prison staff intended to use lethal injection to kill Smith in his 2022 execution but postponed the procedure after failing to find a vein for over an hour and a half. Smith then attempted to have his execution commuted to a life sentence, an effort denied by the United States Supreme Court on January 25. Authorities executed Smith shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision.
Smith died from hypoxia, a fatal condition resulting from a depletion of someone’s oxygen. According to some advocates, including members of the United Nations, execution by nitrogen gas is inhumane and could be considered torture. Nitrogen hypoxia isn’t an immediate death and could leave victims struggling for oxygen for minutes. According to witnesses who attended Smith’s execution, the death row inmate “thrashed” and struggled for several minutes before his eventual death.
Various anti-death penalty groups are calling Smith’s death inhumane due to the controversial nature of nitrogen gas executions. Veterinarians also argue against using nitrogen gas for executions, citing that the practice is unethical due to the suffering it can inflict. According to Ravina Shamdasani, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.N. is concerned about the United States using nitrogen gas for execution purposes. Shamdasni said that Smith’s execution could be considered a violation of the prohibition on torture, potentially resulting in punitive measures for the United States.
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