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  • Sydney Umstead

Beyond The Dome: Alabama uses untested nitrogen

By: Sydney Umstead, News Editor

The Alabama prison Holman Correctional Facility carried out the first ever death sentence execution that used nitrogen hypoxia on Jan. 25.

In an article before the execution which has since been updated, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs wrote in The New York Times that the usage of nitrogen hypoxia was “untested.” 

Kenneth Eugene Smith went into the execution process at 7:53 p.m. Central Time and was reported dead at 8:25 p.m. This was amidst “objections of [the Supreme Court’s] three liberal justices and concerns from death penalty opponents that the untested method could cause Mr. Smith to suffer,” per The New York Times

United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated, “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.” She continued with the statement, “The world is watching.”

Reports from journalists in attendance stated that Smith had “appeared conscious for several minutes after the nitrogen gas started flowing into the mask, depriving him of oxygen.” 

The witnesses also quoted “in part” some of Smith’s final words. He was reported as saying, “Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step backward.”

Kenneth Eugene Smith received the death sentence for his involvement in the murder of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, which occurred in 1988. 

Sennett’s husband was a pastor who had enlisted Smith, along with three other men, to carry out the murder of his wife. 

Bogel-Burroughs went on to discuss how “at [Smith’s] sentencing, 11 out of 12 jurors voted to spare his life and to sentence him to life in prison, but the judge in the case, N. Pride Tompkins, decided to overrule their decision and condemned him to death.” 

The Times states that in the case of Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted in 1996, Alabama had later deemed it “illegal for judges to overrule juries that have recommended a life sentence — a prohibition that now exists in every state — but the new law does not apply to previous cases.” 

The failed execution of Smith occurred in November of 2022. The New York Times reported that “executioners could not find a suitable vein before his death warrant expired.” 

Alabama's attorney general has stated the choice to use nitrogen was the first “anywhere in the world.” 

While the situation in Alabama may be the first time nitrogen has been used, other states have begun to consider this process as they “face mounting problems obtaining lethal injection drugs because of pressure from medical groups, activists and lawyers,” Bogel-Burroughs wrote. 

Lawyers from the state are said to view the use of nitrogen as less painless in comparison to lethal injections. Bogel-Burroughs discussed how “Mr. Smith and his lawyers had themselves identified the method as preferable to the troubled practice of lethal injection in the state.” However, in Smith’s “last-ditch petition to the Supreme Court, Mr. Smith’s lawyers argued that Alabama’s protocol would create a substantial risk for suffering.”

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