What is a nitrogen hypoxia execution? Kenneth Eugene Smith set to become first prisoner to die using new method

Mugshot of Kenneth Eugene Smith
Kenneth Eugene Smith is scheduled for execution later this month. Pic credit: Alabama Dept. of Corrections

This week, the state of Alabama received approval from a Federal judge to go ahead with the execution of convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith using an experimental execution technique that will force the prisoner to inhale pure nitrogen gas.

The decision has been greeted with condemnation from Smith’s lawyers, anti-death penalty groups, and even the United Nations.

The Alabama Dept. of Corrections has scheduled the execution to take place later this month between the 25 and 26th. Smith’s lawyers are appealing the decision, and the case may end up before the US Supreme Court.

This will be the first time this method of execution will be used. Two other states, Mississippi and Oklahoma, have also sanctioned the use of nitrogen hypoxia, but Alabama will be the first to put it into practice.

The execution will be done using nitrogen hypoxia, which involves placing a respiratory mask over the inmate’s mouth and nose, forcing them to breathe nitrogen while depriving them of oxygen.

Proponents of this method say it is more humane than current methods. The inmate is expected to lose consciousness within seconds and die in minutes.

According to the Scientific American, nitrogen is an inert gas that makes up 78 percent of the air we breathe and normally passes through our bodies harmlessly. However, when forced to breathe pure nitrogen, cells and organs become deprived of oxygen and begin to break and shut down.

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Critics concerned nitrogen gas execution may cause undue suffering

Those arguing against using nitrogen as an execution method say that there has not been enough study done on how long the process takes and that the inmate is likely to suffer.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has expressed concern regarding Smith’s case, stating, “We are concerned that nitrogen hypoxia would result in a painful and humiliating death,” which could be a violation of the prisoner’s constitutional rights.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker rejected Smith’s lawyers claims that their client was being treated as a “test subject.”

Huffaker argued the execution should not be stopped just because the authorities were using a new method. He pointed out that lethal injection – currently the most common method – was also new at the beginning. The Judge conceded that Smith was not “guaranteed a painless death.”

Kenneth Eugene Smith to executed for killing Elizabeth Sennett

Smith has been on death row for over 30 years. In 2022, the authorities attempted to execute him by lethal injection but halted proceedings when they failed to place intravenous lines into his system.

The 58-year-old Smith was convicted of capital murder for killing 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett in Colbert County, Alabama, in 1988. Smith and another man, John Forrest Parker, were reportedly paid $1000 by her husband, Charles Sennett, to perform the murder.

Sennett was a pastor who had got himself into debt and ordered his wife killed so he could claim on a life insurance policy. He committed suicide when the cops started closing in on the truth.

Smith’s accomplice, Parker, was executed in 2010.

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