Alabama carries out its first execution in the United States using nitrogen gas

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Warning: This story contains descriptions of a death by execution.

Alabama executed a convicted murderer with nitrogen on Thursday, putting him to death with a first-of-its-kind method that once again put the United States at the forefront of the capital punishment debate .

The state said the method would be humane, but critics called it cruel and experimental. Authorities said Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. at a prison in Atmore, Alabama, after breathing pure nitrogen through a face mask to cause oxygen deprivation .

It was the first time a new execution method had been used in the United States since the introduction of lethal injection, now the most commonly used method, in 1982.

The execution came after a last-minute legal battle in which Smith’s lawyers claimed the state was making him the test subject for an experimental execution method that could violate the constitutional ban on cruel punishment and unusual.

Federal courts rejected Smith’s attempt to block the project, with the latest ruling coming Thursday evening from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state previously attempted to execute Smith, convicted of a 1988 murder-for-hire murder, in 2022, but the lethal injection was canceled at the last minute because authorities could not connect an IV line.

Smith was one of two men convicted of the murder of Elizabeth Sennett. Prosecutors said he and the other man each received US$1,000 to kill Sennett on behalf of her pastor husband, who was deep in debt and wanted his insurance back.

Victim’s family says Smith had to pay

In a final statement, Smith said: “Tonight, Alabama takes humanity a step backwards. … I leave with love, peace and light.” He made the “I love you sign” with his hands towards his family members who witnessed it.

“Thank you for supporting me. I love you, I love you all,” Smith said.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey later said the execution was justice for the murder of 45-year-old Sennett.

“After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to cheat the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrific crimes…I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can have closure after all these years of dealing with this great loss,” Ivey said. in a report.

A photo of a man.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was executed Thursday evening, was one of two men convicted of a 1988 murder-for-hire murder. (Alabama Department of Corrections/Reuters)

The victim’s son, Charles Sennett Jr., said in an interview with WAAY-TV that Smith “needs to pay for what he did.”

“And some of these people say, ‘Well, he doesn’t need to suffer like that.’ Well, didn’t he ask mom how to suffer?” said the son.

“They just did it. They stabbed her multiple times.”

The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the execution.

“Alabama’s execution of Kenneth Smith, in a horrific, reckless and unprecedented manner, is a profound illustration of the barbaric practice of capital punishment,” the ACLU said in a statement. “It is high time for our country to end the death penalty instead of inventing new, more heinous ways of applying it.”

The “guinea pig” of Alabama

The execution protocol called for Smith to be strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber – the same one where he was strapped for several hours during the lethal injection attempt – and to be given a “full face mask air respirator » be placed on his face. .

The execution lasted approximately 22 minutes from the opening and closing of the observation room curtains. Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes.

For at least two minutes, he appeared to shake and writhe on the stretcher, sometimes pulling against the restraints. This was followed by several minutes of heavy breathing, until breathing was no longer noticeable.

The state predicted that nitrogen would cause unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes.

Asked about Smith’s jerks and convulsions on the gurney, Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm said they were involuntary movements.

“All of this was expected and part of the side effects that we observed or studied from nitrogen hypoxia,” Hamm said, using the medical term for the lack of oxygen in body tissues.

“Nothing was out of the ordinary from what we expected.”

State Attorney General Steve Marshall said Thursday evening that nitrogen gas “was intended to be — and has now proven to be — an effective and humane method of execution.”

A strapped stretcher is shown in an austere room through a window.
A file photo of the Alabama lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Center in Atmore, Alabama, where Kenneth Eugene Smith was executed Thursday evening. This is the same room where, in 2022, prison officers unsuccessfully attempted to execute him by lethal injection. (Dave Martin/Associated Press)

Before the execution, doctors and organizations had expressed concern about the method, and Smith’s lawyers had asked the Supreme Court to halt the execution to examine claims that it violated the constitutional ban cruel and unusual punishment.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed with Thursday’s ruling, along with two other liberal justices. She wrote: “Having failed to kill Smith in his first attempt, Alabama chose him as a ‘guinea pig’ to test a method of execution never before attempted.” The world is watching.

The majority justices made no statement.

A man, his back turned, looks towards a sign in front of a parked car.  The sign states, "Stop experimental executions!"
Anti-death penalty activists place signs along the road leading to Holman Correctional Center in Atmore, Alabama, ahead of the scheduled execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday. (Kim Chandler/Associated Press)

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a separate dissent and was joined by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council have said they believe this method of execution could violate the ban on torture.

Some states are seeking new ways to execute people because drugs used in lethal injections have become hard to find, with pharmaceutical companies increasingly reluctant to have their products used for capital punishment.

Three states – Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma – have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but no state had until now attempted to use the untested method.

Smith’s lawyers had raised concerns that he might choke to death on his own vomit as the nitrogen gas flowed out. The state made a last-minute procedural change so that he would not be allowed to eat in the eight hours before his execution.

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