The Challenges of Implementing Nitrogen Gas Executions in the United States

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Once again, this decision puts the US at the forefront of the death penalty debate. (Image Credit: Star Beacon)

The recent execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama, the first known instance of death caused by suffocation with nitrogen gas in the United States, has reignited debates around the legal, moral, and technical aspects of capital punishment. This event has prompted discussions on the efficacy and humaneness of alternative execution methods, as states grapple with issues related to the availability and administration of lethal injection drugs.

Facing challenges with the purchase, administration, and effects of lethal injection drugs, several states, including Alabama, have explored alternative methods such as firing squads, electric chairs, and gas chambers. In 2015, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama became the first states to authorize the use of nitrogen hypoxia in executions. The execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith, who opted for nitrogen after surviving a botched lethal injection attempt in 2022, marked a historic moment in the evolution of execution methods.

While Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall hailed the execution as a breakthrough, critics, including Maya Foa of Reprieve, a human rights group, argued that executing states often seek methods that appear medical and modern while being brutal and violent. The debate centers on the definition of “humane” and whether nitrogen gas, touted as painless and nearly perfect by proponents, truly meets this criterion.

Journalists who witnessed Smith’s execution reported that he “shook and writhed” for at least two minutes, contradicting the state’s assertion that he would lose consciousness within seconds. The discrepancies between expectations and reality have raised concerns about the predictability and effectiveness of nitrogen hypoxia, with some experts warning of potential risks and suffering if the procedure goes wrong.

Despite the authorization of nitrogen gas by Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama, states have been hesitant to adopt less common methods of capital punishment. South Carolina authorized execution by electric chair or firing squad in 2021, but later reverted to lethal injections. The director of the Oklahoma prison system announced the use of nitrogen gas in 2018, but the change never materialized. Alabama is the only state to develop a protocol for using nitrogen hypoxia.

With the number of executions in the United States on the decline, states are reluctant to change established execution protocols. The successful execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith may influence other states to consider nitrogen hypoxia, but the long-standing preference for familiar methods remains a significant factor.

Opponents argue that nitrogen gas executions are experimental and pose potential dangers to both the condemned and those administering the method. The lack of historical testing in death chambers adds an element of uncertainty, as witnessed in Smith’s execution, where unexpected movements and prolonged consciousness were observed.

The use of nitrogen gas in the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith opens a new chapter in the ongoing debate over the death penalty in the United States. As legal, moral, and technical questions persist, the implementation of alternative methods like nitrogen hypoxia sparks discussions on the true nature of humane executions and the broader implications for the future of capital punishment in the country.

Written by Ava LeFevre

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