On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled in favor of Alabama proceeding with the first execution by nitrogen gas asphyxiation later this month, dismissing concerns that the new method might constitute cruel or unusual punishment.
Kenneth Smith, convicted of a 1988 murder-for-hire, is slated for execution on Jan. 25 using the nitrogen gas method, where a mask connected to a cylinder of nitrogen will be affixed to his face to deprive him of oxygen.
The shift to nitrogen gas arises as states in the US face challenges in obtaining barbiturates for lethal injections due to a European ban on selling drugs for executions. In response, some states explored alternative methods, such as firing squads, while Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma adopted new gas-based protocols.
Smith filed a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections, expressing concerns about the risks associated with the proposed method, including the potential for the mask’s seal to break, allowing oxygen in, and jeopardizing the execution.
United Nations experts cautioned that this novel execution method using inert-gas asphyxiation could violate international treaties against torture and cruel punishment.
Despite these concerns, Judge R. Austin Huffaker of the US District Court in Montgomery rejected Smith’s plea for an injunction to halt the execution. Huffaker stated that Smith was not guaranteed a painless death and had not demonstrated that the current protocol posed a substantial risk of serious harm or additional pain.
Kenneth Smith, aged 58, is one of two individuals in the US who survived a prior botched execution attempt in November 2022, when Alabama’s lethal injection execution failed due to difficulties in inserting an intravenous line. Smith’s lawyer, Robert Grass, intends to appeal the recent ruling.