Alabama Set to Execute Inmate Using Controversial Nitrogen Gas Method, Ignites Debate

Montgomery, Alabama – A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Alabama will be permitted to use nitrogen gas as a method of execution later this month. If carried out, it would be the first execution in the United States using this new method, which critics argue is cruel and experimental. Inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith had requested a preliminary injunction to stop his scheduled execution on January 25th, but the judge rejected the motion.

Smith’s lawyers claim that Alabama is using him as a “test subject” for an untried execution method after he survived a previous attempt to put him to death by lethal injection. They have expressed concerns about the unknowns and potential problems associated with the use of nitrogen gas, arguing that it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Smith’s attorney, Robert Grass, plans to appeal the decision.

Smith, now 58, was convicted of a murder-for-hire in 1988. Prosecutors alleged that Smith and another man were paid $1,000 each to kill a preacher’s wife, Elizabeth Sennett. The motive behind the crime was her husband’s significant debts and desire to collect insurance money.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall welcomed the ruling, stating that it brings them closer to holding Smith accountable for the “heinous murder-for-hire slaying” he was convicted of committing. The state’s plan for the execution involves the use of a respirator-type face mask to replace breathable air with nitrogen, causing death by oxygen deprivation. Although three states have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, none have used it thus far.

While the defense argued that the new protocol is filled with uncertainties and potential violations of constitutional rights, Judge R. Austin Huffaker concluded that the risks presented by the execution method do not amount to cruel and unusual punishment. However, the question of whether the execution can proceed may still be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Smith’s case has garnered attention from experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, who have cautioned that this execution method could violate the prohibition on torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.

The victim, Elizabeth Sennett, was brutally murdered in her home in 1988. The coroner testified that she had been stabbed multiple times. Her husband, who was the pastor of a church at the time, took his own life when he became a suspect in the murder investigation. Smith’s conviction was initially overturned on appeal but he was retried and convicted again in 1996. The jury recommended a life sentence, but a judge overrode their decision and sentenced Smith to death.

The scheduled execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith by nitrogen gas in Alabama is attracting attention due to the controversial nature of this untested method. With concerns about the potential for cruel and unusual punishment, the fate of Smith’s execution may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.