Alabama's First Nitrogen Gas Execution: Unmasking Ethical Quandaries in "Experiment"

The prisoner's lawyers argued that it was a form of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the US Constitution, the Guardian reported

by Sededin Dedovic
Alabama's First Nitrogen Gas Execution: Unmasking Ethical Quandaries in "Experiment"
© David McNew / Getty Images

Alabama recently carried out its first execution using nitrogen gas. Experts and part of the public have cited these as controversial and unproven methods, which has sparked debates about its humanity and constitutionality.

Kenneth Smith, age 58, was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. at an Alabama prison after inhaling pure nitrogen through a face mask, a process that took approximately 22 minutes. Despite Alabama officials claiming the new method may be the most humane execution method ever devised, eyewitness accounts suggest otherwise.

The question arises whether there is even a "most humane" way to execute a human being. Is execution as punishment the same as murder? Is it a way to punish the most serious cases and what consequences can it cause on society? Execution process Smith's execution was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m.

local time at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. However, that was delayed as the US Supreme Court considered Smith's latest appeal. We waited a little over an hour, there was great nervousness, but the execution was finally approved, which led to the controversial use of nitrogen gas, which was announced.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who did not favor the execution, wrote: "Having failed to kill Smith on the first try, Alabama chose him to test a method of execution that had never been tried before. The world is watching us". The convict also unsuccessfully claimed that he was being treated doubly unlawfully by the fact that he had already been in the execution procedure once.

Journalist Marty Ronnie, present in the death chamber, reported the disturbing details of Smith's final moments. Between 19:57 and 20:01 Roni noticed Smith convulsing, taking deep breaths and his body shaking violently. According to his words, it looked terrifying and he felt discomfort in his stomach the whole time.

The prison's chaplain, the Reverend Jeff Hood, noted that prison officials in the room were visibly surprised at how badly the execution had gone. There was silence, and the officials silently looked at each other and at the body that was writhing and convulsing.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm later said that Smith appeared to be holding his breath as long as he could to prolong his life for at least a few minutes. This statement seems intimidating, and this method seems to be quite cruel.

Death penalty protesters outside of John Joseph Moakley United States© Scott Eisen / Getty Images

Legal and ethical issues

The execution method, known as "nitrogen hypoxia," involves placing an industrial-style respirator mask over the prisoner's head and forcing them to inhale pure nitrogen, leading to a fatal oxygen deficiency.

Critics argue that this unchecked procedure raises ethical concerns and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the US Constitution. Smith's previous execution attempt in 2022 by lethal injection was called off at the last minute due to technical problems.

This rare experience made Smith a unique witness to the challenges of surviving a botched execution. The new death protocol adopted by Alabama was intended to avoid the pitfalls of the previous attempt, but it was met with severe criticism.

In his interview with the Guardian, Smith also appealed to the American people to show mercy to those like him who face judicial killings. He said that he is sick and that he has already survived this once, he is in a very difficult mental state, and he has not slept for a long time.

Smith's personal struggles

In a phone call from his prison cell days before his execution, Smith revealed that he was not ready to die. In his closing statement, Smith expressed his belief that Alabama is challenging humanity to take a step back.

He sent, as he says, this message to the whole world, and he also expressed great love to his family members who witnessed his execution. "You know, brother, I would say: Leave room for mercy. That just doesn't exist in Alabama.

Mercy really doesn't exist in this country when it comes to difficult situations like mine," he said. In closing remarks, Smith said, “Tonight, Alabama challenges humanity to take a step back. I leave with love, peace and light”.

Then he smiled slightly and showed his heart to the family members who were visibly devastated by the pain of such a scene.

International criticism and concern for human rights

Alabama faced widespread domestic and international criticism before the execution.

Hundreds of Jewish clergy and community leaders across the United States, organized by L'chaima! Jews against the death penalty signed a letter calling for a moratorium on executions. In addition, UN experts on arbitrary executions and torture strongly condemned the court in Alabama for human experimentation.

They stated that it was a step backwards, and that instead of finally ending the execution of convicts and the death penalty becoming a part of history, Alabama invented an even crueler method. Smith was convicted of murdering the pastor's wife Elizabeth Sennett in 1988.

He and another man were allegedly paid $1,000 each by Charles Sennett, a priest in the Church of Christ, to kill her. The execution of Kenneth Smith by nitrogen gas in Alabama raised significant ethical questions about the constitutionality and humanity of the death penalty.

The unchecked nature of the procedure seems to call for a re-evaluation of the methods used in carrying out the death penalty.