Kenneth Eugene Smith Update: Alabama’s Unprecedented Nitrogen Gas Execution Raises Concerns
In a historic move, Alabama executed Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, using nitrogen gas in what is now known as the world’s first nitrogen hypoxia execution. Smith had been on death row for over three decades for his involvement in a contract killing. The execution took place at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, and its unprecedented nature had sparked months of legal battles over its constitutionality.
The process began at 7:53 pm, with Smith giving his last words at 7:55 pm. Strapped to a gurney and wearing a mask covering his face, Smith appeared conscious for approximately ten minutes. Witnesses reported that he shook and writhed for about two minutes, followed by five minutes of heavy breathing. The entire execution process, including the flow of nitrogen gas, lasted around 15 minutes, culminating in Smith’s pronounced death at 8:25 pm.
While Alabama prison officials kept many details about the execution method undisclosed, the use of nitrogen gas drew attention and criticism. Only five independent media witnesses were allowed to observe the process, raising concerns about transparency. Smith’s family, as well as the family of his victim, Elizabeth Sennett, were present at the execution.
Despite the historic nature of the event, concerns had been raised by medical professionals and human rights advocates, arguing that using an untested execution method amounted to human experimentation. Smith’s lawyers took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the court ultimately rejecting his final request for intervention.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall had previously defended nitrogen hypoxia as “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man.” The state argued that the method had undergone scrutiny from experts and was deemed unlikely to cause an unacceptable level of pain before death.
This execution method was chosen after Alabama’s previous attempt to execute Smith by lethal injection in 2022 had failed. States that still employ the death penalty have faced challenges in obtaining lethal injection drugs, leading to the adoption of alternative methods. Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have approved nitrogen hypoxia, while other states have reintroduced the long-disused firing squad.
The execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing debate over capital punishment methods. Despite legal battles, protests, and pleas for intervention, Alabama proceeded with the nitrogen gas execution, sparking renewed discussions about the ethics and humanity of such methods. The world watches closely as Kenneth Eugene Smith’s case further ignites the conversation surrounding the death penalty in the United States.