US: Alabama registers first execution in the world using nitrogen gas

The US state of Alabama has executed Kenneth Eugene Smith, a convicted murderer, with nitrogen gas, an episode marking the first time use of the method globally.

Alabama tried and failed to execute the convict by lethal injection in 2022.
Alabama carries out first execution using nitrogen gas. Photo Courtesy: UNICEF/Josh Estey

Smith, 58, lost two final appeals to the Supreme Court and one to a federal appeals court, arguing the execution was a cruel and unusual punishment, reported BBC.

Alabama tried and failed to execute the convict by lethal injection in 2022.

He was sentenced to death for his role in a 1988 murder for hire.

Smith was left with PTSD

According to Death Penalty Information Center website,  Smith’s case is unusual in several respects.

“First, he has already survived one execution attempt, which left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a clinical psychologist and trauma expert who examined him. On November 17, 2022, the state tried and failed to execute Mr. Smith using lethal injection but abandoned its efforts after four hours when staff were unable to access a vein,” the website said.

A journalist who witnessed the execution described to the BBC how he thrashed violently on the gurney, and said the process took around 25 minutes in total.

One of the five members of the media transported to Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore to witness the execution told the BBC it was unlike any other he’d witnessed in Alabama.

“I’ve been to four previous executions and I’ve never seen a condemned inmate thrash in the way that Kenneth Smith reacted to the nitrogen gas,” Lee Hedgepeth told the BBC.

“Kenny just began to gasp for air repeatedly and the execution took about 25 minutes total.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall reacted to the development and said in a statement: “Justice has been served. Tonight, Kenneth Smith was put to death for the heinous act he committed over 35 years ago: the murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett, an innocent woman who was by all accounts a godly wife, a loving mother and grandmother, and a beloved pillar of her community.”

“I ask the people of Alabama to join me in praying for Elizabeth’s family and friends, that they might now better be able to find long-awaited peace and closure,” he said.

Speaking on the execution method, he said: “Tonight also marked the first time in the nation – and the world – that nitrogen hypoxia was used as the method of execution. The law authorizing the execution method was enacted in 2018 and was intended to be—and has now proved to be — an effective and humane method of execution.”

UN earlier reacted to the execution plan

OHCHR Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani last week said Smith’s execution could amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international human rights law.

“The UN human rights office calls on Alabama state authorities to halt Smith’s execution, scheduled for 25-26 January, and to refrain from taking steps towards any other executions in this manner,” she said, speaking in Geneva, last week.

“Alabama already sought to execute Smith unsuccessfully by lethal injection in 2022. Smith also has ongoing proceedings in federal court against his upcoming execution which have not been finally resolved,” she added.

Expressing OHCHR’s serious concern, Shamdasani said the execution could breach international treaties on civil rights and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  

Furthermore, the death penalty is inconsistent with the fundamental right to life.

“There is an absence of proof that it deters crime, and it creates an unacceptable risk of executing innocent people,” she said.