Guest Commentary: Death by Nitrogen Hypoxia

by Billy Sinclair

Some human rights experts believe death by nitrogen hypoxia is painful and excruciating.

Nitrogen is air without oxygen. It is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas that is the most plentiful element in the earth’s atmosphere.

Life cannot exist without it.

Yet it is one of earth’s deadliest gases. It snuffs out oxygen like extinguishing the fire of a candle.

When given to a human being, there will be burning, swelling, and spasms in the throat and upper respiratory tract during the first 30 seconds; oxygen depletion resulting in brain cells dying after one minute; a buildup of drowning-like fluid in the lungs producing unconsciousness after one and one-half minutes; the death of most brain cells after three minutes; and finally death by suffocation after five minutes.

That is the way the State of Alabama—a state with a long, sordid history of botched executions—plans to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith on January 25, 2024.

If carried out, it will mark the first ever nitrogen hypoxia execution carried out in the United States—a country that ranks seventh in the world at carrying out executions.

Depending on how well nitrogen hypoxia proves at killing death row inmates, the U.S. will certainly increase its ranking as the confederate states and their neighbors abandon lethal injection and turn to nitrogen as the most effective way to thin out their crowded death row populations.

According to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, this is the way the state plans to carry out Smith’s execution:

  • The condemned inmate will be escorted to the execution chamber and placed on a gurney. A pulse oximeter will be secured on the inmate.
  • The execution team will place and adjust a mask on the inmate’s face. One team member will monitor the pulse oximeter while the execution team captain verifies that the mask is properly placed.
  • The inmate’s spiritual advisor, if there is one, will be escorted to the execution chamber to carry out any previously approved written plan.
  • The warden will order the curtains to the witness rooms opened after verifying there are no last-minute stays.
  • The warden will read the execution warrant.
  • The inmate will be allowed up to two minutes to make a final statement. The warden and assistant warden will leave the execution chamber.
  • The warden will make a final check with the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections that there are no last-minute stays.
  • The execution team will conduct a final inspection of the mask.
  • The warden will activate the nitrogen hypoxia system. Nitrogen gas will be administered for 15 minutes, or five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer.
  • Once the execution is carried out, the execution team captain will be notified via radio and will close the curtains.
  • The spiritual advisor, if any, will be escorted from the chamber.

These protocols notwithstanding, Smith’s execution will be a gruesome affair. There is no humane way for the State to extinguish the life of a human being, regardless of their criminal transgression. The nearly 16,000 executions carried out in this nation since 1776, by an assortment of methods, has demonstrated this ugly reality time and time again.

Attorney General Marshall says the State of Alabama is prepared to gas Smith up to 15 minutes to ensure his asphyxiation. If that’s humane, Webster should add it to its list of humane definitions.

Billy Sinclair spent 40 years in the Louisiana prison system, six of which were on death row. He is a published author, an award-winning journalist (a George Polk Award recipient) and the co-host with his wife Jodie of the criminal justice podcast, “Justice Delayed.”

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for