Nitrogen Asphyxiation Executions
Alabama extended an offer on Friday to assist other U.S. states interested in carrying out executions through asphyxiation by nitrogen gas. This announcement followed the state’s recent use of this new method to execute Kenneth Smith, a prisoner convicted of a 1988 murder.
Alabama’s Attorney General, Steve Marshall, labeled the method as “humane,” while human rights groups criticized it as cruel and torturous. Marshall stated that 43 other individuals on death row in Alabama had chosen asphyxiation since it was approved in 2018.
Marshall, a Republican, urged other states to adopt this method, emphasizing Alabama’s readiness to assist in its implementation. While Oklahoma and Mississippi have added nitrogen asphyxiation as an execution option, they have not yet utilized it. Alabama has shared its new protocol with the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
Marshall asserted that asphyxiation by nitrogen is now a proven execution method, countering its previous status as untested. In the U.S., nearly half of the states have abolished the death penalty, but for those that still practice it, lethal injections remain the primary method. Some states have encountered challenges in obtaining the necessary drugs or finding suitable veins, prompting exploration of alternative methods.
Reports on the violence of the asphyxiation method varied between state officials and witnesses of Smith’s execution. While Alabama officials claimed everything went as expected, some media witnesses reported that Smith remained conscious for several minutes after the nitrogen flowed, shaking and writhing on the gurney.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections confirmed discussions with Alabama about the method, but emphasized that lethal injections using midazolam remain their primary execution method. Oklahoma would consider alternatives only if lethal injection is ruled out by a court or if drugs become unavailable. These alternatives include nitrogen asphyxiation, an electric chair, or a firing squad, in that order.
Mississippi’s Department of Corrections did not respond to inquiries. Alabama’s Department of Forensic Sciences will conduct an autopsy on Smith’s body.
Smith was convicted of murdering Elizabeth Sennett after being paid $1,000 to carry out the act. The jury initially voted for a life sentence, but an Alabama judge overruled it, a decision made under a now-defunct law. Sennett’s relatives, who witnessed the execution, expressed forgiveness toward her killers and relief that the process was over.
Various rights groups, including the ACLU and Amnesty International USA, condemned the execution, arguing that these methods aim to conceal the pain inflicted on the condemned individuals. Maya Foa, joint executive director of Reprieve, emphasized the need to recognize executions for what they are: the state violently taking a human life.