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Lawmakers in Louisiana want to join Alabama in using nitrogen gas as a means of execution

Anti-death penalty activists place signs along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., ahead of the scheduled execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. The state plans to put Smith to death with nitrogen gas, the first time the new method has been used in the United States. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)
Kim Chandler/AP
Anti-death penalty activists place signs along the road heading to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., ahead of the scheduled execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. The state plans to put Smith to death with nitrogen gas, the first time the new method has been used in the United States. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

Louisiana may resume executions after a 14-year pause after the state's Republican-dominated Legislature gave final passage to a bill to add electrocution and the use of nitrogen gas as means of administering the death penalty. The legislation comes one day after the country's most recent execution in Texas and a failed attempt in Idaho, both by lethal injection. The bill now heads to the desk of Governor Jeff Landry, a tough-on-crime Republican who has signaled his support for the measure.

Amid ongoing challenges over obtaining lethal injection drugs, Louisiana's bill follows in the steps of other reliably red states that have expanded their execution methods — from firing squads in Idaho to the newest method of oxygen deprivation via use of nitrogen gas in Alabama.

Proponents of expanding execution methods say it's past time for Louisiana to uphold "contractual obligations" between the state and victims' families after a death sentence has been handed down in court. They say this bill is a tool to once again carry out executions. Opponents, however, questioned the legality of the proposed methods and have argued that new methods could violate legal protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Discussions of the bill on the Senate floor Thursday also reignited the age-old debate over the morality of capital punishment, which has been in state law for decades. Supporters told harrowing stories of victims' families who are awaiting their day of justice.

Those who say the death penalty should be abolished pointed to the cost of executions, religious beliefs, racial disparities and Louisiana's exoneration rate — from 2010 to 2020, at least 22 inmates sentenced to death have been exonerated or had their sentences reduced.

"We are not debating if the death penalty is right or wrong," said Democratic Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews. "We are debating how far we will go to kill a man."

Louisiana's bill passed in the Senate 24-15. Each Democrat in the chamber and four Republicans voted against the bill.

Currently 58 people sit on Louisiana's death row. However, an execution has not occurred in the state since 2010 and, at this time, none are scheduled for the future, according to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

Nationally, over recent decades, the number of executions have declined sharply amid legal battles, a shortage of lethal injection drugs and even waning public support of capital punishment. That has led to a majority of states to either abolish or pause carrying out the death penalty. Last year there were 24 executions carried out in five states, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

However in Louisiana, between a new conservative governor and, just recently, the nation's first execution using nitrogen gas — the first time a new method had been used in the U.S. since lethal injection was introduced in 1982 — there has been a renewed push to explore other methods.

The proposal to add the use of nitrogen gas came as no shock to political pundits in Louisiana — as the method gains traction elsewhere in the country — but reinstating electrocution has surprised some.

For four decades until 1991, when the state moved to lethal injections, Louisiana had used the electric chair — dubbed by death row inmates as "Gruesome Gertie."

Currently, only eight states allow for electrocution, however seven of them have lethal injection as the primary method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Likewise, lethal injection would be the preferred method in Louisiana based on the bill, but the head of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Corrections would have final say.

Supreme courts in at least two states, Georgia and Nebraska, have ruled that the use of the electric chair violates their state constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

Louisiana's execution bill is among a slew of "tough-on-crime" policies voted on during the state's short special legislative session, which the governor called to address violent crime in the state.

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Related Content
  • Alabama's first-ever use of nitrogen gas for an execution could gain traction among other states and change how the death penalty is carried out in the United States, much like lethal injection did more than 40 years ago, according to experts on capital punishment. APR News raised this issue in its national coverage on NPR.
  • The European Union and the U.N. Human Rights Office are expressing regret over the death of convicted killer Kenneth Smith. The EU called the first ever use of nitrogen gas "particularly cruel." The U.N. says the death penalty does not deter crime. APR news may be asked to explain to news listeners in eastern Europe how Alabama administers capitol punishment. The investigative news website "Dnevnik" in Bulgaria’s capitol city of Sofia contacted APR and asked for our input.
  • An Alabama inmate remains scheduled to be the first person in the United States to be put to death with nitrogen gas. The U.S. Supreme Court is rejecting a request for a stay of execution for Kenneth Eugene Smith. Prior to this decision, his attorneys were hoping for a last-minute reprieve from federal courts in his bid to halt the death sentence from being carried out.
  • 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.
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