Alabama’s First Nitrogen Gas Execution Ends in Violent Convulsions, Prompting Outcry from Witnesses

MONTGOMERY, Alabama – The recent execution of Kenneth Smith in Alabama has sparked controversy and raised concerns about the use of nitrogen hypoxia as a method of capital punishment. Witnesses to the execution reported that Mr. Smith experienced violent shaking and convulsions as he inhaled pure nitrogen through a mask until he ultimately suffocated. While state officials claim that the process is painless, the distressing scenes witnessed during Mr. Smith’s execution suggest otherwise. The execution itself lasted at least 22 minutes, although the official time of death remains unknown due to the closure of the execution curtain.

Prior to the execution, United Nations human rights experts expressed alarm at the untested and potentially torturous nature of nitrogen gas as an execution method. They argued that its use may violate international human rights treaties ratified by the United States. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, called on Alabama state authorities to cancel the execution. In addition, veterinary scientists, who have conducted studies on animals, have advised against the use of nitrogen gas due to ethical concerns and the potential for distress and panic.

Mr. Smith’s case itself raises questions about the death penalty in Alabama. He was initially sentenced to life in prison by a jury in 1996, with a vote of 11-1. However, the sentencing judge went against the jury’s decision and imposed the death penalty. It is worth noting that Alabama no longer permits judges to override a jury’s decision for life without parole.

The failed attempt to execute Mr. Smith by lethal injection in 2022 further underscores the concerns surrounding the use of nitrogen gas. The process was abandoned after hours of unsuccessful attempts to find a suitable vein for injection. Critics argue that using nitrogen gas as a method of execution is not only cruel and inhumane but also poses significant risks to prison staff, incarcerated individuals, and the general public. The Alabama Department of Corrections acknowledged these risks by requiring Mr. Smith’s spiritual adviser to sign a waiver acknowledging potential gas exposure.

Recent incidents involving nitrogen gas illustrate the potential dangers associated with its use. A tragic event at a poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia resulted in the deaths of five workers due to a nitrogen leak. Another worker died at the hospital, and several others required hospitalization and intensive care. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reports an average of eight deaths and five injuries annually from nitrogen exposure, further highlighting the risks and potential hazards.

Governor Kay Ivey had the authority to intervene and halt Mr. Smith’s execution, but she chose not to exercise that power. This decision, some argue, sets a dangerous and irresponsible precedent that other states might follow. Calls to abolish the death penalty altogether have been amplified, with critics emphasizing the inherent cruelty, potential for wrongful convictions, and disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. The question remains whether the use of nitrogen gas, or any other method, should have a place in the future of capital punishment in the United States.