Alabama’s Use of Nitrogen for Execution: Will Other States Follow?


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The execution of Kenneth Smith in Alabama last Thursday was the first time nitrogen gas was used. This method was used because of the problems with lethal injections since Texas first used the method in 1982. The method was used in the Holman prison in Atmore. In 2023, 24 executions were carried out in the US, all by lethal injection. The method applied consists of placing a respirator-type mask over the nose and mouth of the inmate to replace the breathing air with nitrogen, which causes death due to lack of oxygen. Three states (Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma) have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but no state has attempted to use it until now. Human rights groups, the United Nations and torture experts have indicated that the method is painful, but above all, that human beings could not be used as experimental targets. In fact, people who witnessed Smith’s execution reported that the prisoner convulsed, clenched his fists and experienced general tremors in his body while he was dying after inhaling nitrogen gas. About eight minutes passed before he was pronounced dead.

Alabama attempted, unsuccessfully, to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith by lethal injection in 2022 for his role in the 1988 murder-for-hire of a pastor’s wife. The Alabama Department of Corrections called off the execution when the team was unable to connect the two IV lines. required of Smith. Officials then tried a central line, which involves a catheter placed in a large vein, but were unable to complete the process before the death sentence period expired. In another execution scheduled for 2022, prison officials stuck Alan Eugene Miller with needles for more than an hour trying to find a vein, and at one point left him hanging vertically in a stretcher before state officials made the decision to cancel the execution. In that case, Alabama agreed not to use lethal injection to execute him and opt for a new method: nitrogen hypoxia.

Many other states that use lethal injection have encountered several problems with the execution method, including difficulty finding usable veins, needles that become disconnected or problems obtaining or using lethal chemicals. In Oklahoma in 2014, condemned inmate Clayton Lockett writhed, gritted his teeth, and tried to get up from the stretcher after being declared unconscious when the state used a new drug, the sedative midazolam, in its three-drug approach. Although prison officials attempted to stop the execution, Lockett was pronounced dead 43 minutes after the procedure began. A subsequent investigation revealed that a single intravenous line in Lockett’s groin, which was covered by a sheet, became loose and the Lethal chemicals were injected into the tissue surrounding the injection site rather than directly into the bloodstream. In Ohio in 2006, the lethal injection of Joseph Clark was stopped while prison technicians located a suitable vein, which was then He collapsed and Clark’s arm began to swell. Clark raised his head and said, “It doesn’t work. It does not work”. Technicians eventually found another vein, but Clark was not declared dead until nearly 90 minutes into the process.

Nitrogen gas is not the only method states are exploring. South Carolina passed a law that allows a firing squad in 2021, due to the inability to obtain drugs for lethal injection. The state developed protocols and was preparing to use the firing squad in the face of a court challenge that both it and the electric chair are cruel and unconstitutional. The firing squad has not been used as an execution method in the United States since Utah in 2010, but Five states currently authorize it. Electrocution, hanging, and other forms of lethal gas use also continue to be permitted in several states where the death penalty is applied. Many states have had difficulty obtaining the lethal chemicals used to carry out executions. The manufacturers of many of the drugs have banned the use of their products to carry out executions or have stopped manufacturing them altogether, prompting many states to go to great lengths to protect their drug supply. Before Oklahoma obtained a source of the sedative midazolam in 2020 for its three-drug lethal injection method, the state planned to resume executions using nitrogen gas after the director of prisons said he was being forced to deal with “sordid individuals” who may have had access to them.

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