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Execution using Nitrogen gas debuts in Alabama; Kenneth Smith first convict to die using controversial method

The execution method, nitrogen hypoxia, is veiled in secrecy, raising scepticism and prompting objections. Medical professionals warn of potential catastrophic mishaps with this method.

Execution using Nitrogen gas debuts in Alabama; Kenneth Smith first convict to die using controversial method
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First Published Jan 26, 2024, 8:41 AM IST

Alabama carried out the execution of Kenneth Smith, marking the first death row inmate known to die by nitrogen gas in the United States. The execution represents the emergence of a new method, with experts expressing concerns about its potential for excessive pain or even torture. The US Supreme Court, on Thursday, denied a last-minute appeal by Smith's attorneys to halt the execution. Smith had initially survived a lethal injection attempt in 2022 and, on Thursday, accepted a final meal of steak, hashbrowns, and eggs, as disclosed by the Alabama Department of Corrections. Smith had been sentenced to death for his role in a 1988 murder-for-hire case.

Despite appeals from liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Sonia Sotomayor to pause the execution, the Supreme Court declined to intervene. The execution method, known as nitrogen hypoxia, is shrouded in secrecy, with the state's published protocol containing redactions that experts argue conceal crucial details from public scrutiny.

Alabama, in court records, defended the redactions, citing security concerns and asserting that death by nitrogen gas is "perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised." However, scepticism persisted among Smith and his team, with both expressing concerns about the impending execution.

Understanding Nitrogen Hypoxia

Nitrogen hypoxia involves breathing pure nitrogen without oxygen, leading to cellular breakdown and eventual death. Alabama anticipates that an individual subjected to this method would lose consciousness within seconds, with death occurring in a matter of minutes. Medical professionals, however, have criticized the use of nitrogen hypoxia, warning of potential catastrophic mishaps, including violent convulsions or survival in a vegetative state.

The adoption of nitrogen hypoxia by Alabama and two other US states as an alternative execution method is attributed to the challenges in obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections, contributing to a decline in the number of executions nationwide.

Kenneth Smith's Conviction and Execution

Smith was convicted for his role in the 1988 murder-for-hire of a woman named Sennett. The victim, 45-year-old Sennett, was brutally attacked and killed as part of a scheme orchestrated by her husband, Charles Sennett, a debt-ridden preacher, to collect insurance money. Smith's fellow hitman, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010. The execution of Kenneth Smith highlights the ongoing debate surrounding the use of alternative methods of capital punishment in the United States.

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