Alabama Man Kenneth Smith Becomes First Person in US Executed by Nitrogen Gas

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — In a historic event, an Alabama man has become the first person in the United States to be executed by nitrogen gas. Kenneth Smith, 58, was sentenced to death for his involvement in a murder-for-hire plot in 1988. Originally scheduled for a lethal injection in 2022, Smith’s execution had to be halted due to difficulties in finding a suitable vein. However, on Thursday evening, the execution was finally carried out using nitrogen hypoxia, the method requested by Smith himself as an alternative to lethal injection.

Governor Kay Ivey confirmed the lawful execution in a statement, expressing hope that the family of the victim, Elizabeth Sennett, could find closure after enduring years of pain. The execution took place at 8:25 p.m. following the United States Supreme Court’s denial of Smith’s last-ditch appeal for a stay of execution. Despite Smith and his attorneys arguing that death by nitrogen gas would be cruel and unusual punishment, the court rejected the appeal, allowing the execution to proceed.

It is worth noting that Smith was one of three individuals in Alabama who experienced botched execution attempts in 2022, as reported by the Death Penalty Information Center. While Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma allow for the use of nitrogen gas in executions, this marked the first time it was employed in practice. The state’s execution protocol involves strapping the inmate to a gurney, fitting them with a mask and breathing tube, and gradually depriving their body of oxygen by administering pure nitrogen through the mask.

Although nitrogen constitutes 78% of the air humans breathe, an excessive concentration can deprive organs of oxygen, leading to organ failure and, ultimately, death. Smith’s legal team had previously advocated for nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative to lethal injection, arguing against the latter’s constitutionality. In a bid to halt his execution, Smith raised concerns about potential complications, including the risk of asphyxiation, stroke, or permanent vegetative state.

Amidst the controversy surrounding Smith’s execution method, various organizations such as the U.N. Human Rights Office and the Vatican-affiliated Catholic charity Sant’Egidio Community called on Alabama to reconsider. However, Governor Kay Ivey defended the state’s execution procedure, citing its legislative approval. The use of nitrogen gas in executions was authorized by state law in 2018.

This unprecedented execution raises questions about the future use of nitrogen gas as a method of capital punishment. While Alabama regards it as a viable and constitutional alternative, critics argue that it is a barbaric practice. As the debate continues, the execution of Kenneth Smith marks a significant milestone in the history of capital punishment in the United States.