In a groundbreaking move that rekindled the national discourse on capital punishment, Alabama executed a convicted murderer on Thursday using nitrogen gas, a method never before employed in the United States. While state officials asserted the method’s humanity, critics labeled it as both cruel and experimental.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. at an Alabama prison after inhaling pure nitrogen gas through a face mask, inducing oxygen deprivation. This marked the first use of a new execution method in the U.S. since the introduction of lethal injection in 1982.
The execution, which took approximately 22 minutes, saw Smith conscious for several minutes, during which he exhibited signs of shaking and writhing on the gurney. Critics argued that the procedure appeared to be more prolonged and arduous than the state had predicted.
In a final statement, Smith remarked, “Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backward… I’m leaving with love, peace, and light.” He expressed gratitude and love towards his family members who witnessed the execution.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey asserted that the execution brought justice for the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett. Ivey stated, “After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes.”
Despite the state’s insistence on the effectiveness and humanity of the nitrogen gas method, there were concerns raised by observers, including Smith’s attorneys, about the potential for constitutional violations against cruel and unusual punishment. Critics argued that Smith was being used as a test subject for an experimental execution method.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Smith’s last-minute legal challenge, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissenting, stating that Alabama had selected him as a “guinea pig” for an untested execution method. Sotomayor expressed concern about the lack of transparency regarding the execution protocol.
While Alabama officials defended the nitrogen gas method as humane, the execution prompted reactions from various groups, including the Sant’Egidio Community, a Vatican-affiliated Catholic charity, which labeled the method as “barbarous” and “uncivilized.”
As states seek alternative execution methods due to challenges in obtaining lethal injection drugs, Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have authorized nitrogen hypoxia. However, until now, no state had attempted to use this untested method.
Smith’s case involved a murder-for-hire plot in which he and another individual were paid to kill Elizabeth Sennett on behalf of her pastor husband. The execution came after a legal battle, with concerns raised about the secrecy surrounding the execution protocol and the potential for inhumane treatment.