Alabama will help bring nitrogen asphyxiation executions to other states By Reuters


©Reuters. Vehicles are inspected by law enforcement at the gate of the Holman Correctional Facility prior to the scheduled execution by pure nitrogen asphyxiation of Kenneth Smith, convicted of a 1988 murder-for-hire, in Atmore, Alabama, United States Janu


By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – Alabama offered assistance on Friday to other U.S. states seeking to carry out executions by asphyxiation using nitrogen gas, hours after testing the new method of killing Kenneth Smith, a prisoner convicted of a 1988 murder.

The state has also promised to do more in Alabama: Attorney General Steve Marshall said 43 more people on death row have chosen asphyxiation over lethal injections since lawmakers approved the method in 2018.

Alabama called the new method “humane,” while human rights groups condemned it as cruel and torturous. A spokesman for US President Joe Biden, a Democrat who campaigned on a broken promise to abolish the federal death penalty, said the execution was “concerning”.

“Alabama did it, and now you can too, and we stand ready to assist you in implementing this method in your states,” Marshall, a Republican, told reporters Friday.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma and Mississippi have added nitrogen asphyxiation to the execution methods allowed in their states, but have not yet used it. Alabama provided the Oklahoma Department of Corrections with an unmodified version of its new protocol, an Oklahoma spokeswoman said.

Marshall said nitrogen asphyxiation, the first new execution method since lethal injections began in the United States in 1982, is “no longer an untested method.”

“It’s a proven thing,” he said.

Nearly half of American states have abolished the death penalty, but for other states the main method remains lethal injection. Some states have found lethal injections increasingly difficult, struggling to find the necessary drugs or a suitable vein in a prisoner, forcing them to consider other methods.

There were differing accounts of how violent the asphyxiation method was among state officials and some who witnessed Thursday night’s public execution of Smith, who, unusually, survived a first execution attempt in 2022 when executioners struggled to insert an intravenous line for a lethal injection.

Alabama had predicted in court documents that, with his new method, Smith would slip into unconsciousness within about 30 seconds and die soon after. The executioners strapped a commercial industrial safety respirator mask, made by a Canadian-owned safety product manufacturer called Allegro Industries, over the man’s face and connected it to a tank of pure nitrogen.

Five journalists were able to witness the execution through a window as media witnesses said the man remained conscious for several minutes after the nitrogen flowed, and then began shaking and writhing on the gurney for about two minutes.

The Rev. Jeff Hood, who stood beside Smith as his spiritual advisor, said Smith repeatedly threw his head forward as he fought for his life.

Alabama authorities said everything went as expected. They said Smith appeared to be holding his breath for as long as possible and suggested the contortions could have been “involuntary movements.”

“What happened last night was textbook,” Marshall said.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections said officials discussed the method with their Alabama counterparts, according to spokeswoman Kay Thompson.

Under Oklahoma law, lethal injections using the sedative drug midazolam remain the primary execution method, and could only become an alternative if a court decides that lethal injection cannot be used on a prisoner or if the drugs do not were more available. The state may then resort to nitrogen asphyxiation, the electric chair or the firing squad, in that order, but the scenario has yet to emerge, the department said.

“We don’t have a protocol, we don’t have any equipment, and it will probably be two years before we are definitively ready to move forward with this method,” said Thompson, the department spokesman, referring to nitrogen asphyxiation. Oklahoma doesn’t have the electric chair either, although that is also a method permitted by state law, he added.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections did not respond to questions.

The Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences will perform an autopsy on Smith’s body, prison officials said.

Smith was convicted of murdering Elizabeth Sennett after accepting $1,000 to kill her with accomplices at the behest of her husband, a preacher who later committed suicide.

The jury voted 11-1 to sentence him to life in prison, but an Alabama judge overturned the decision under a law that was later repealed. Sennett’s relatives witnessed the execution and later told reporters that they had forgiven his killers and were glad the execution was over.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International USA and other human rights groups condemned the execution.

“The purpose of these methods is to hide the pain,” said Maya Foa, joint executive director of the rights advocacy group Reprieve. “How many more prisoners will have to die agonizing deaths before we see executions for what they really are: the state violently taking a human life?”

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