Alabama Governor Announces January Execution Using Nitrogen Gas

By The Vanguard Staff

MONTGOMERY, AL — Alabama will become the first state in the nation to use nitrogen gas in an execution on death row in January  

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has announced a Jan. 25 execution date for Kenneth Eugene Smith using the new method, according to an Associated Press story, noting, “Smith was one of two men convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett in northwestern Alabama.”

“The execution will be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia, the method previously requested by the inmate as an alternative to lethal injection,” Ivey spokesperson Gina Maiola wrote in an emailed statement that added Smith’s attorneys said the state was developing the nitrogen method when fighting previous efforts to execute him by lethal injection.

The AP said the announcement of the execution date “moves Alabama closer to becoming the first state to attempt an execution by nitrogen gas, although there will be a legal fight before it is used. Nitrogen hypoxia has been authorized as an execution method in Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi, but no state has used it.”

Smith’s attorneys last week filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the execution, arguing Alabama was attempting to make their client the “test subject for this novel and experimental method.”

The defense said the state tried but failed to execute Smith by lethal injection last year, and AP reported the Alabama Department of Corrections called off the execution when the execution team could not get the required two intravenous lines connected to Smith.

“Like the 11 jurors who did not believe Mr. Smith should be executed, we remain hopeful that those who review this case will see that a second attempt to execute Mr. Smith — this time with an experimental, never-before-used method and with a protocol that has never been fully disclosed to him or his counsel — is unwarranted and unjust,” Smith’s attorney Robert Grass wrote in an emailed statement. 

The statement referenced that jurors at Smith’s trial voted 11-1 to recommend a sentence of life imprisonment, but a judge overrode that recommendation and imposed the death penalty. 

A divided Alabama Supreme Court last week granted the state attorney general’s request to authorize Smith’s execution, although it is the responsibility of the governor to set the exact execution date, said AP.

Proponents have said the execution method would be painless, but those opposed said it’s human experimentation.

The AP, quoting the execution protocol, writes “nitrogen makes up 78 percent of the air inhaled by humans and is harmless when inhaled with proper levels of oxygen. Under the proposed procedures, a mask would be placed over the inmate’s nose and mouth and their breathing air would be replaced with nitrogen, depriving them of the oxygen needed to stay alive. The nitrogen ‘will be administered for 15 minutes or five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer.’” 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall last week said the court decision had “cleared the way” for Smith’s execution by nitrogen hypoxia, noting said Sennett’s family has “waited an unconscionable 35 years to see justice served.”

AP said the state “tried but failed to execute Smith by lethal injection last year. The Alabama Department of Corrections called off the execution when the execution team could not get the required two intravenous lines connected to Smith.

“Prosecutors say Smith was one of two men who were each paid $1,000 to kill Sennett on behalf of her pastor husband, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance. Her husband killed himself a week later. The other man convicted in the slaying was executed in 2010.”

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