The state of Alabama plans to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith, sentenced to death for a 1988 murder, by nitrogen gas this Thursday
The state of Alabama is about to make history in the field of criminal executions in the United States. This Thursday, the country’s first execution by nitrogen gas is scheduled, an unprecedented and controversial method that has generated strong international opposition and a legal battle with prisoner Kenneth Eugene Smith. The defendant, 58 years old, maintains that he is being used as an experimental subject while his appeals before the courts have not yet been resolved.
Kenneth Eugene Smith was sentenced to death more than three decades ago for killing a woman for money
Kenneth Eugene Smith was found guilty of murdering Elizabeth Sennett, a woman who was killed in 1988 at the behest of her husband, Charles Sennett, who wanted to collect insurance. Smith and another man, John Forrest Parker, were each paid $1,000 to commit the crime. Smith’s execution is set for 18:00 local time (00:00 GMT Friday), but his defense is still filing appeals to stop it.
Nitrogen gas is an unproven method that could cause great suffering to the prisoner, according to human rights defenders
The state of Alabama, which has spent years working on a protocol for executing prisoners with this new nitrogen asphyxiation technique, has argued in court that it is “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man”. Under the procedure, convicts will be fitted with a mask that will replace oxygen with nitrogen gas, causing death within minutes and without pain, according to the state.
However, that claim has not convinced Smith’s defense, which after a federal judge approved the execution last week appealed to the Court of Appeals and to the Supreme Court, arguing that his client is treated by the state as “a guinea pig”. These resources are still pending 48 hours after execution. In addition, several international human rights organizations have expressed their concern about the new method and have asked the state of Alabama “to stop the execution of Smith (…) and to refrain from carrying out other executions of this kind”. Amnesty International, for example, has warned that “this new, unproven method could be extremely painful” for the prisoner, “thus violating international human rights treaties that the United States has ratified.”
Alabama is the first state to develop an alternative to lethal injections given the difficulty in obtaining the drugs
Alabama is the first state to opt for nitrogen gas as a method of execution, after having trouble getting the drugs needed for lethal injections, the most widely used method in recent decades. Pharmaceutical companies have refused to supply their products for this purpose, and some executions have had complications that have led to the method being questioned as inhumane and the subject of legal disputes for years. In fact, Alabama tried to execute Smith in November 2022, but the executioner was unable to insert his intravenous lines. As part of a later settlement, Alabama agreed not to try to execute Smith by lethal injection again.