Federal Judge Gives Green Light for Alabama’s First Nitrogen Gas Execution

LYNN, Alabama – A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Alabama will be permitted to carry out an execution using nitrogen gas later this month, marking the nation’s first use of this new method. The decision comes despite criticism from the inmate’s lawyers, who argue that the method is cruel and experimental.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker denied inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith’s request for an injunction to halt his scheduled execution on January 25. Smith’s attorneys are expected to appeal the decision, potentially bringing the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Under Alabama’s plan, a respirator-type face mask will be placed over Smith’s nose and mouth, replacing breathable air with nitrogen and causing him to die from lack of oxygen. While three states – Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma – have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as a method of execution, it has not been tested or used in practice.

Smith, now 58, was convicted in 1988 for the murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher’s wife in north Alabama. He and another man were paid $1,000 each to carry out the killing on behalf of the victim’s husband, who was in financial distress and sought to collect on insurance.

The previous attempt to execute Smith, through lethal injection in 2022, was halted when authorities could not establish the required intravenous connection. However, this time Smith’s attorneys have raised concerns about the risks and humaneness of nitrogen gas as an execution method, arguing that it violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Alabama Attorney General’s office argues that death by nitrogen gas is quick and painless, comparing it to industrial accidents where people have passed out and died after exposure to the gas. Smith’s attorneys, meanwhile, have highlighted the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines, which state that while nitrogen hypoxia is acceptable for euthanizing pigs, it may be distressing for other mammals.

Concerns were also raised about the gas mask interfering with Smith’s ability to pray aloud or make a final statement before witnesses. However, the Alabama prison system agreed to minor changes to address these concerns, allowing Smith’s spiritual adviser to enter the execution chamber before the mask is placed on his face.

The case that led to Smith’s death penalty shocked the community in north Alabama in 1988. The victim, Elizabeth Sennett, was found stabbed multiple times in her home, and her husband subsequently took his own life when he became a suspect in the investigation. Smith was initially convicted in 1989 but later had his conviction overturned and was retried in 1996.

In concluding the article, it is important to note that the execution will proceed as planned, making history as the first use of nitrogen gas as a method of execution in the United States. Smith’s lawyers are expected to appeal the decision, potentially elevating the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The controversy surrounding the use of nitrogen gas as an execution method continues to raise questions about its constitutionality and the ethical considerations surrounding capital punishment.