Federal Judge Clears Path for First Execution by Nitrogen Hypoxia in Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — A federal judge in Alabama has rejected an inmate’s request to halt his execution scheduled for later this month, potentially making him the first person to be put to death using the untested method of nitrogen hypoxia. Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted of a murder-for-hire plot in 1988, had argued that the state’s current protocol for nitrogen hypoxia violated his constitutional rights due to the risk of a painful death. However, Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr. ruled that Smith had not proven that the protocol would cause cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore denied his request.

Smith, now 58 years old, was convicted of killing 45-year-old Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett. While the trial jury recommended a sentence of life in prison, the judge instead handed down a death sentence, despite such action being outlawed in Alabama since 2017. The state had previously attempted to execute Smith by lethal injection in 2022, but the procedure was called off after difficulties in gaining access to his veins.

Smith had requested to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia, a method that involves breathing nitrogen through a mask until death occurs. He argued that this method would be less painful and that the state’s current protocol posed risks of stroke, vegetative state, or suffocation. However, Judge Huffaker determined that the evidence did not support a substantial risk of pain or prolonged death.

In response to the ruling, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall stated that Smith had avoided his lawful death sentence for over 35 years, and that the rejection of his claims was a step towards justice for the victim.

The U.N. human rights agency recently expressed concerns over Alabama’s intention to carry out the execution using nitrogen hypoxia, emphasizing that it would be the first instance of such an untested method. The experts warned about the potential for grave suffering and the lack of scientific evidence to prove otherwise.

The execution is scheduled to take place between January 25 and 26, marking a significant development in the ongoing debate surrounding alternative execution methods in the United States. The ruling sets a precedent for the use of nitrogen hypoxia, despite the concerns raised by Smith and human rights organizations.

Kenneth Eugene Smith’s upcoming execution by nitrogen hypoxia in Alabama is set to break new ground in capital punishment. Despite arguments that the state’s protocol for this untested method could lead to pain and suffering, a federal judge has ruled that Smith’s constitutional rights are not violated. The ruling has sparked controversy and reignited discussions about the use of alternative execution methods.