Alabama conducts first execution with nitrogen gas

 January 28, 2024

Alabama made history with the execution of inmate Kenneth Smith, marking the nation's first known use of nitrogen hypoxia as a method of capital punishment.

The procedure, which replaces the air an inmate breathes with a high concentration of nitrogen, resulted in Smith's death at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

The details

Smith, 58, had been sentenced to death for his role in a 1988 murder-for-hire case. Previously, in 2022, he survived a failed attempt at execution by lethal injection.

Smith's legal team, along with experts and advocates, including some from the United Nations, expressed concerns about the potential for nitrogen hypoxia to cause excessive pain or torture.

Despite these concerns, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall asserted that the execution was "textbook" and offered assistance to other states interested in adopting this method.

The method

Nitrogen hypoxia has been approved by three states, with Alabama being the first to outline a protocol and successfully carry out the execution.

Marshall sees this as a pivotal moment, stating, "What occurred last night was textbook. As of last night, nitrogen hypoxia as a means of execution is no longer an untested method. It is a proven one. It's the method that Kenneth Smith ultimately chose, along with 43 other death row inmates in our state."

The attorney general's message to other states is clear: "Alabama has done it, and now so can you. And we stand ready to assist you in implementing this method in your states."

The interest from other states reflects a potential shift in the landscape of capital punishment methods across the United States.

What happened?

During the execution, Smith was fitted with a mask to administer the nitrogen, and the process took approximately 15 minutes. Witnesses reported that Smith appeared conscious for several minutes, experiencing shaking and writhing for about two minutes. His breath then slowed until it was no longer perceptible. The execution concluded at 8:25 p.m., and Smith was pronounced dead.

Smith's case has sparked a debate about the humanity of nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method. Proponents argue that it should be painless, citing nitrogen's role in deadly industrial accidents or suicides. However, skeptics fear the method could go awry, and concerns have been raised about the secrecy surrounding the state's protocol.

Alabama's invitation to other states to adopt this method raises ethical considerations and further intensifies the ongoing discussion about the most humane and effective means of carrying out capital punishment.

The successful execution of Kenneth Smith with nitrogen hypoxia sets a precedent, leaving the nation to grapple with the implications and potential widespread adoption of this method in other states.