Atmore, Alabama – January 26, 2024
The state of Alabama carried out the first-ever execution in the United States using nitrogen gas asphyxiation on Thursday night, as announced in a news release by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
Convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith, aged 58, was put to death at 8:25 p.m. local time (0225 GMT Friday) at an Alabama prison. Smith, sentenced to death for a 1988 murder, experienced nitrogen gas asphyxiation, a method involving breathing pure nitrogen through a face mask to induce oxygen deprivation.
Journalists, serving as media witnesses, reported that Smith remained conscious for several minutes after the activation of nitrogen. Despite being securely fastened to a gurney, he exhibited movements such as shaking his head and writhing for approximately two minutes. Subsequently, he took deep breaths before his breathing gradually slowed and became imperceptible.
Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm addressed the media, explaining, “It appeared that Smith was holding his breath as long as he could. He struggled against the restraints a little bit, but it’s an involuntary movement and some agonal breathing. So that was all expected.”
Earlier on the same day, the “U.S. Supreme Court” rejected a “last-minute appeal” by Smith’s lawyers, who contended that this method violated constitutional protections against cruelty. Three liberal Justices, “Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan” dissented in writing, expressing their preference to pause the execution. The majority of Justices did not provide statements.
Smith’s legal team had also sought a stay from a federal court of appeals, but their efforts were denied in a 2-1 decision issued the day before. Notably, Alabama’s previous attempt to execute Smith by lethal injection in November 2022 was unsuccessful.
Human rights groups, United Nations torture experts, and Smith’s lawyers had actively campaigned against the nitrogen gas asphyxiation method, citing its experimental nature and potential for an agonizing death or non-fatal injury. Concerns were raised about the fit of the mask and the risk of oxygen entering, potentially prolonging suffering or causing complications like choking on vomit if Smith became nauseous.
The controversial execution method has drawn mixed reactions, with supporters claiming it to be humane and critics deeming it cruel and experimental. Apart from Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi are the only other states that have approved the use of nitrogen for executions.
This landmark event has reignited debates surrounding capital punishment methods in the United States, as the nation witnesses a significant shift in the execution landscape.