The American state of Alabama on Thursday executed murder convict Kenneth Eugene Smith, marking the first use of nitrogen gas as a method of execution in the United States. The execution proceeded despite a last-minute appeal by Smith’s attorneys, which was denied by the US Supreme Court, reported US news website CNN. Justices Elena Kagan, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Sonia Sotomayor were in favour of stopping the execution, but the majority of the Supreme Court did not intervene, continuing the trend from a day earlier.
Kenneth Smith, originally sentenced to death for his involvement in a 1988 murder-for-hire case, had previously survived an attempt to execute him by lethal injection in 2022. Prior to his execution by nitrogen gas, he opted for a final meal consisting of steak, hashbrowns, and eggs, as disclosed by the Alabama Department of Corrections, CNN reported.
Convicted in 1989 for the murder-for-hire killing of preacher’s wife Elizabeth Sennett, Smith becomes the first person globally to be executed with pure nitrogen gas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The method of execution, known as nitrogen hypoxia, has raised concerns due to the secrecy surrounding its application. The state’s published protocol contains redactions that experts argue conceal crucial details from public scrutiny.
The process involves breathing nitrogen without oxygen, leading to cellular breakdown and death. Alabama claimed that Smith would lose consciousness within seconds and die in a matter of minutes. However, medical professionals raised concerns about potential catastrophic mishaps, including violent convulsions and survival in a vegetative state, reported British media website BBC.
The state defended the redactions, citing security reasons, and asserted that death by nitrogen gas is “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised”.
Smith and his team remained sceptical of the new execution method. In a joint statement with his spiritual adviser, the Rev Jeff Hood, Smith expressed concern about the lack of transparency, stating, “The eyes of the world are on this impending moral apocalypse. Our prayer is that people will not turn their heads. We simply cannot normalize the suffocation of each other.”
The sons of the victim, Elizabeth Sennett, believed it was time for Smith’s sentence to be carried out, expressing frustration that the focus was on the execution method rather than their mother. Mike Sennett remarked, “It seems like a lot of the focus today is on Smith and his nitrogen, whatever, process.” His brother, Chuck Sennett, added, “He’s gotta pay the price for what he did to our mother,” emphasizing their mother’s memory as a “loving, caring woman”, reported CNN.
Witnesses, including five members of the media, observed Smith’s execution at Holman Correctional Facility. After the gas began flowing into his mask, Smith reportedly smiled, nodded towards his family, and signed “I love you”. Witnesses noted two to four minutes of writhing and about five minutes of heavy breathing before his death, BBC reported.
The use of nitrogen for executions has only been approved by three states. Despite legal challenges and appeals, the US Supreme Court, as well as a federal appeals court, declined to intervene, allowing Alabama to proceed with the execution. State officials welcomed the court’s decision, viewing it as a rejection of attempts to prevent the execution through any means, according to Attorney General Steve Marshall.