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Alabama’s nitrogen hypoxia execution plan considered experimental


Alabama is just over a day away from the first ever execution using nitrogen gas. Kenneth Eugene Smith is on death row for the murder for hire of a preacher’s wife in 1988. The State wants to use a face mask on the inmate to pump in nitrogen until he dies of suffocation. Alabama claims the process is painless. The non-profit, non-partisan, criminal justice journalism organization The Marshall Project calls it experimental. Staff writer spokesman Maurice Chammah says tests on animals are a concern…

“We know that rats who have been exposed to nitrogen are often shown really kind of having really adverse reaction really panicking, and kind of flipping out in various ways,” Chammah said. “We also know that some people who have had nitrogen, you know, affect them will vomit, will start to fix the eight may even go into a seizure or, you know, a coma, persistent vegetative state.”

Smith was one of two men convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire of a preacher's wife. Prosecutors said the men were paid $1,000 to kill Elizabeth Sennett, 45, on behalf of her husband, who wanted to collect on insurance. The coroner testified Sennett was stabbed repeatedly. Her husband killed himself when he became a suspect. John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted, was executed in 2010. Smith's initial conviction was overturned. He was convicted again in 1996. The jury recommended a life sentence by 11-1, but a judge sentenced Smith to death. Alabama no longer allows a judge to override a jury's sentencing decision in death penalty cases. APR covered this issue in its national award winning investigation “…and justice for all.”

Smith is one of few people to survive a prior execution attempt. The state attempted a lethal injection in 2022, but the prison system called it off before the drugs were administered because the staff had difficulty connecting the two required intravenous lines. Maurice Chammah, staff writer with The Marshall Project, says no one knows if nitrogen hypoxia is cruel and unusual because it’s never been done before.

“I mean, the lawyers on both sides of the case have argued about how the risks make it cruel, unusual. But the nature of execution methods like this is that before they're tested, you kind of can't know what will go wrong, you can just speculate the likelihood of things going wrong,” Chammah contends.

The execution would be the first attempt to use a new method since lethal injection was introduced in 1982. Three states — Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method. Some states are exploring new methods as lethal injection drugs have been difficult to find.

The American Veterinary Medical Association wrote in 2020 euthanasia guidelines that nitrogen hypoxia is not an acceptable euthanasia method for most mammals because the anoxic environment "is distressing." And experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council cautioned they believe the execution method could violate the prohibition on torture.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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