Alabama Executes Kenneth Smith Using Nitrogen Gas, Igniting Debate Over Cruelty and Ethics

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By Jenna Tooley

 

MONTGOMERY, AL— In a controversial turn of events, the state of Alabama executed Kenneth Smith on January 25, 2024, using nitrogen hypoxia, a method in which the condemned inhales pure nitrogen until suffocation. Despite assurances of a painless death, witnesses reported disturbing scenes as Mr. Smith shook, convulsed, and gasped for minutes, raising questions about the method’s efficacy and ethics. 

 

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Nations human rights experts warned that this untested execution method might constitute torture, violating international human rights treaties.

 

Volker Türk, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, had urged Alabama authorities to reconsider the execution, emphasizing the potential for a painful and humiliating death. The use of nitrogen gas as an execution method has faced criticism from veterinary scientists, who, due to ethical concerns, have largely ruled nitrogen gas out as a euthanasia method in laboratory studies on animals.

 

Kenneth Smith’s case is marred by controversy as a jury, in 1996, had voted 11-1 for life in prison for his role in a 1988 killing. However, the sentencing judge imposed the death penalty against the jury’s decision. Notably, if Smith were tried today, Alabama’s current laws no longer permit judges to override a jury’s decision to sentence someone to life without parole.

 

The attempt to execute Smith in 2022 via lethal injection failed, highlighting the challenges and uncertainties associated with various execution methods. The decision to proceed with nitrogen gas as the means of execution raises ethical concerns not only about its impact on the condemned but also on prison staff, spiritual advisers, and the broader public.

 

Recent incidents, such as the tragedy at a poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia, where a nitrogen leak resulted in 6 fatalities, 13 hospitalizations, and 130 workers being evacuated, underscore the potential dangers of using nitrogen in enclosed spaces. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board reports annual incidents of death and injury from nitrogen exposure, emphasizing the risks involved in handling this gas.

 

Critics argue that Governor Kay Ivey had the authority to intervene and stop Smith’s execution but chose not to, contributing to the debate on the ethical implications of the death penalty. The broader implications of Alabama’s decision are echoed as other states, such as Ohio, contemplate following a path criticized as dangerous and irresponsible.

 

The execution of Kenneth Smith reignites the conversation about the death penalty’s morality, efficacy, and potential for wrongful convictions. Advocates call for the abolition of the death penalty, citing not only the cruelty of execution methods but also the systemic issues leading to the disproportionate targeting of marginalized communities within the criminal justice system.


About The Author

Jenna Tooley is a third-year senior studying Political Science with a concentration in American Politics and minors in Global Studies and Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has a passion for social justice and advocacy work and intends on pursuing Law School in the very near future, with a potential specialization in Criminal Law in aims of dismantiling the stigma around incarcerated people and addressing the root causes of recidvism to provides incarcerated people resources and rehabilitation to independently function upon re-entry into society. Outside of her advocacy work she enjoys traveling and sightseeing, aborbing the ambiance of coffee shops, and thifting as a form of self-care.

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