On January 25th, the United States state of Alabama plans to belt Kenneth Eugene Smith to a gurney, strap a respirator mask to his face, and force him to inhale pure nitrogen gas until he suffocates. This wholly untested method of execution raises the specter of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Smith is scheduled to be the first human being in the US put to death using nitrogen gas. This method is not based on any scientific evidence. Instead, the state has based its brand-new procedures and protocols on speculation from accidental deaths by nitrogen. Veterinary scientists have ruled out the same method for euthanizing most mammals due to ethical concerns.
The execution scheduled for this week is not the first time the state of Alabama has attempted to kill Smith. In November 2022, Smith survived a botched execution by lethal injection, Alabama’s second failed execution in less than two months. Smith “was strapped down, couldn't catch [his] breath … was shaking like a leaf … absolutely alone in a room full of people … crying out for help.”
This new proposed method of execution continues the series of rights violations that have blighted Smith’s case. Smith’s first trial included prosecutors unconstitutionally removing Black jurors on the basis of race, and the second ended with a judge overriding the recommendation by eleven of twelve jurors that Smith should not receive a death sentence. Since his trial, the Alabama legislature ended this judicial override practice, so Smith faces execution based on a practice no longer permitted in any other state.
Nitrogen gas also presents a health hazard to those involved in Smith’s execution, including his spiritual advisor, whom the Alabama Department of Corrections required to sign a waiver acknowledging the risks of possible exposure to the gas.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for the cancellation of Smith’s execution, warning that the state’s intention to kill Smith in this manner could amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The death penalty is an attack on human dignity, is uniquely cruel in its finality, and is inevitably marked by discrimination, arbitrariness, and error, as evidenced yet again in Smith’s case. Alabama should not be subjecting Smith to this experimentation, the terrifying uncertainty, or the almost-certain suffering. Instead, it should abolish the use of the death penalty in all cases.