In Alabama, a legal battle is unfolding over the use of a new and untested execution method known as nitrogen hypoxia. Kenneth Eugene Smith, an inmate on death row, is at the center of this dispute, as his lawyers seek to prevent the state from using this experimental method to carry out his death sentence.
Smith’s attorneys have asked the Alabama Supreme Court to reject the state attorney general’s request to set an execution date using nitrogen hypoxia. While nitrogen gas has been authorized as an execution method in a few states, it has never been employed to execute an inmate.
Nitrogen hypoxia, as proposed, causes hypoxia by making the inmate breathe only nitrogen, depriving them of the oxygen needed to sustain bodily functions, ultimately leading to death.
Nitrogen, which constitutes 78% of the air we breathe, is harmless when mixed with oxygen. Supporters argue that this method could be painless, but critics liken it to human experimentation.
Smith’s attorneys point out that he already experienced one failed execution attempt in November when a lethal injection was botched. During that attempt, the execution team couldn’t establish the necessary intravenous lines, leading to the cancellation of the execution.
Furthermore, Smith has ongoing appeals, and his lawyers accuse the state of trying to expedite his execution ahead of others to render his lawsuit against lethal injection procedures moot.
Alabama authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method in 2018 but has not yet used it. Oklahoma and Mississippi have also authorized it but haven’t employed it either.
The method’s proponent, former Alabama state senator Trip Pittman, disputes claims that it is experimental. He argues that while no state has executed someone using nitrogen, people have died from breathing nitrogen in industrial accidents and suicide attempts, which provides insights into its effects.
Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of Elizabeth Sennett in Alabama’s Colbert County. Prosecutors alleged that Smith and another man were paid to carry out the murder by Sennett’s husband, who wanted to collect on insurance.
The other man involved in the killing was executed in 2010. Charles Sennett, the victim’s husband and a Church of Christ pastor, took his own life when he became a suspect in the murder investigation.