The US state of Alabama carried out the first execution of a convict in the United States using nitrogen gas. The procedure, which Kenneth Smith’s lawyers claimed was a form of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Constitution, had never been carried out.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. local time in a state prison after breathing pure nitrogen gas through a face mask to cause oxygen deprivation. The execution lasted about 22 minutes.
Smith, who was sentenced to death for murdering a woman in 1988, fought a legal battle to prevent the execution by this method, claiming he was being treated as a guinea pig. However, the United States Supreme Court refused to uphold the condemned man’s arguments and, last Wednesday (24), authorized the execution with nitrogen, despite international criticism for the North American authorities to intervene in time.
Alabama asserted that the method of execution used was perhaps the most humane ever granted. In contrast, witnesses and journalists present at the execution site said that Kenneth Smith’s death was anything but human.
Alabama was the first state to develop an alternative to lethal injections – the most common method in recent decades – given the difficulty in acquiring the drugs in recent years due to pharmaceutical companies’ refusal to use them for this purpose.
The execution was scheduled to begin at 6 pm (local time) at the Holman Correctional Center in Atmore, but was postponed while the United States Supreme Court considered the last appeal. Shortly before 8pm, the court denied the appeal, allowing the execution to proceed.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who, along with other liberal justices, disagreed with the execution, stressed: “Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama chose him as a ‘guinea pig’ to test a previously untested method of execution. world is watching.”
Smith’s lawyers argued that moving forward with the execution under untested conditions would violate constitutional protections against cruelty.
Kenneth Smith also argued, unsuccessfully, that he was being treated in a doubly illegal manner, due to the fact that he had already been subject to enforcement proceedings once. In November 2022, the State tied him to a stretcher for four hours and punctured his arms and legs, in an unsuccessful attempt to find a vein through which they could kill him with lethal medications. Subsequently, as part of a plea agreement, Alabama pledged never again to attempt to kill Smith by lethal injection.
The fact placed Smith in a very rare category of inmates who can describe what it is like to survive an execution. The defense argued that Smith’s right not to be subjected to cruel punishment, enshrined in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, was violated.
Days before he was executed, Smith told the British newspaper The Guardian, in a phone call from his cell, that he was not prepared to die. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) was diagnosed, caused by the first failed execution attempt, as well as insomnia and anxiety.
He added that he was terrified at the prospect of vomiting into his mask, which would lead to his death by drowning, a possibility raised by lawyers in court.
In the interview, Smith appealed to the American people to show mercy to those, like him, facing judicial executions. “You know, brother, I would say, leave room for mercy. That just doesn’t exist in Alabama. Mercy really doesn’t exist in this country when it comes to difficult situations like mine,” he said.
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