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US: Alabama to use nitrogen gas in execution for first time

January 25, 2024

A death row inmate in the US state of Alabama is scheduled to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia. The US Supreme Court has declined to halt the controversial and untested execution method.

This Oct. 7, 2002 file photo shows Alabama's lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala.
Alabama is among three US states which approved execution by hypoxia, amid a struggle to procure drugs used in lethal-injection execution protocolsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Martin

The US southern state of Alabama is scheduled on Thursday to carry out the first execution of a death row inmate using nitrogen gas, a method the United Nations has compared to "torture."

Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, has been on death row since 1989, after he was convicted of murder.

In 2022, he was subjected to a failed execution attempt by lethal injection, which his lawyers argue caused him severe physical and psychological pain, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to halt the execution.  

The justices declined to hear Smith's legal challenge contending that a second execution attempt by Alabama — after the first failed attempt caused him severe trauma — would violate the US Constitution's Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

No justice publicly dissented from the decision.

If carried out, Smith's execution would be the first using gas since 1999, when a convicted murderer was executed using hydrogen cyanide gas.

Why is Smith's execution controversial?

Smith's execution is set to take place within a 30-hour time frame beginning at 0600 GMT on Thursday, unless he receives a last-minute reprieve from federal courts in his bid to halt the execution.

Nitrogen gas would be administered through a facemask, depriving the body of oxygen.

Alabama is one of three states which has approved using nitrogen hypoxia for execution, with states which still allow the death penalty struggling to obtain drugs used in lethal-injection execution protocols.

Alabama Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall described the controversial method as "perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised."

However, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN rights office in Geneva, warned the method could "amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, under international human rights law."

Why is Smith on death row?

Smith was found guilty of killing a pastor's wife, Elizabeth Sennett, in 1988. 

His accomplice also was convicted and sentenced to death, with the execution carried out in 2010.

Prosecutors said both men were each paid $1,000 (€919) by her husband, Charles Sennett, to kill her. 

Charles Sennett later took his own life a week after her death.  

There were 24 executions in the United States in 2023, all of them carried out using lethal injection.

US states that still allow the death penalty have found it increasingly difficult to obtain barbiturates used in lethal-injection execution protocols.

Capital punishment has been abolished in 23 US states, while the governors of six others — Arizona, California, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee — have put a hold on its use.

rmt/sri (AFP, AP, Reuters)