US: In a first, Alabama executes convicted murderer with nitrogen gas. How it works?

US, death penalty, nitrogen gas, Alabama
Image Source : REUTERS Kenneth Eugene Smith, convicted for a murder-for-hire committed in 1988, was executed via nitrogen gas

Alabama: The US state of Alabama on Thursday executed a convicted murderer with nitrogen gas, the first-of-a-kind execution method of capital punishment since America began using lethal injections four decades ago. The state said the method of execution was humane, but critics argued that it was cruel and experimental.

The 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith was pronounced dead at 8:25 pm (local time) at an Alabama prison after breathing pure nitrogen gas through a face mask. The execution took about 22 minutes, and Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes. For at least two minutes, he appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney, sometimes pulling against the restraints. Heavy breathing was reported after a while, until it was no longer perceptible.

Smith was convicted of murder-for-hire of 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett in 1988 and survived one execution attempt in November 2022, when Alabama officials aborted his execution by lethal injection after struggling for hours to insert an intravenous line needle in his body. “Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards. … I’m leaving with love, peace and light,” said Smith in a final statement before the Thursday execution.

“After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes. … I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss,” Alabama governor Kay Ivey said in a statement. “Nothing happened here today is going to bring Mom back. It’s kind of a bittersweet day. We are not going to be jumping around, whooping and holler, hooray and all that. … I’ll end by saying Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett got her justice tonight,” he added.

How does the method work?

Alabama has called its new closely watched protocol “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man.” It predicted Smith would lose consciousness in under a minute and die soon after, although witnesses on Thursday said it appeared to take several minutes longer. Alabama has opted for asphyxiation as a simpler alternative for prison systems that struggle to find either veins or the required drugs for lethal injections.

The execution began at 7:53 pm (local time), as executioners restrained him in a gurney and strapped a commercial industrial-safety respirator mask to his face. A canister of pure nitrogen was attached to the mask that, once flowing, deprived him of oxygen. Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes after the nitrogen was activated, according to witnesses.

Although the mask was also secured to the gurney, he then began shaking his head and writhing for about two minutes, and then could be seen breathing deeply for several minutes before his breathing slowed and became imperceptible, the witnesses said. “It appeared that Smith was holding his breath as long as he could. He struggled against the restraints a little bit but it’s an involuntary movement and some agonal breathing. So that was all expected,” said Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm.

Human rights groups, United Nations torture experts and lawyers for Smith had sought to prevent it, saying the method was risky, experimental and could lead to an agonizing death or non-fatal injury. Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual adviser, was at Smith’s side for the execution, and said prison officials in the room “were visibly surprised at how bad this thing went.”

“We saw minutes of someone heaving back and forth. We saw spit. We saw all sorts of stuff from his mouth develop on the mask. We saw this mask tied to the gurney, and him ripping his head forward over and over and over again,” said Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual adviser.

Legal challenges 

The execution came after a last-minute legal battle where Smith’s attorneys accused Alabama of making him the test subject for an experimental execution method that could violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Federal courts rejected Smith’s bid to block it, with the latest ruling coming Thursday night from the US Supreme Court.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who along with two other liberal justices dissented, wrote: “Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its ‘guinea pig’ to test a method of execution never attempted before. The world is watching”. Some doctors and organisations had expressed alarm about the method, and Smith’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to halt the execution, saying it deserved more legal scrutiny.

UN human rights chief Volter Turk on Friday condemned the execution of a prisoner in Alabama by nitrogen gas, saying the method could amount to torture. “I deeply regret the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama despite serious concerns this novel and untested method of suffocation by nitrogen gas may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” he said.

Though poisonous gases such as hydrogen cyanide have been used in executions in the US and beyond in the past, this was the first time a death sentence was carried out anywhere using an inert gas to suffocate someone, capital punishment experts say. Some states are looking for new ways to execute people because the drugs used in lethal injections have become difficult to find. Oklahoma and Mississippi have also approved nitrogen asphyxiation methods for executions, but have yet to deploy it.

What was Smith convicted for?

Smith was convicted of murdering Sennett, a preacher’s wife, after he and his accomplices each accepted a $1,000 fee from her husband to kill her, according to trial testimony. Sennett was found dead in her home on March 1988 with eight stab wounds in the chest and one on each side of her neck. Smith was one of two men convicted in the killing and the other, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010.

The husband, Charles Sennett Sr, killed himself when the investigation focused on him as a suspect, according to court documents. Smith’s 1989 conviction was overturned, but he was convicted again in 1996. The jury recommended a life sentence by 11-1, but a judge overrode that and sentenced him to death under a law that has since been abolished as unconstitutional.

Several of Sennett’s relatives attended the execution and told reporters they had forgiven Sennett’s killers. “Nothing that happened here today is going to bring mom back,” Mike Sennett said. “It’s a bittersweet day, we’re not going to be jumping around, hooping and hollering, hooraying and all that, that’s not us. We’re glad this day is over.”

(with inputs from agencies)