State of Alabama to use nitrogen hypoxia as a form of execution for inmates on death row

MONTGOMERY, AL – According to reports, the state of Alabama is on track to become the first state to execute an inmate by making him breathe pure nitrogen.

This type of style of execution is technically authorized in three states: Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi. All three states authorize nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but as of yet, none has actually performed an execution using it.

Reportedly, the state of Alabama legalized the execution method back in 2018, but lethal injection remains the state’s primary method of execution and is the default method if an inmate does not designate between lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia.

In a nitrogen hypoxia execution, the inmate would breathe pure nitrogen, which would essentially deprive the body of oxygen, causing asphyxiation. Proponents of the method argue that it is a more humane method of execution, however, ethically speaking, it cannot be tested.

On Friday, August 25th, the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall submitted a court filing asking the state Supreme Court to set an execution date for 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith.

Smith is a death row inmate and was one of two men convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire killing of a preacher’s wife. The court filing revealed that the state of Alabama intends to execute Smith by nitrogen hypoxia.

Marshall said in a statement, “It is a travesty that Kenneth Smith has been able to avoid his death sentence for nearly 25 years after being convicted of the heinous murder-for-hire slaying of an innocent woman, Elizabeth Sennett.”

In court filings from June 2021, in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office said that the Alabama Department of Corrections is “nearing completion of the initial physical build for the nitrogen hypoxia system and its safety measures.”

At the time, prosecutors wrote, “Once the build is completed, a safety expert will make a site visit to evaluate the system and look for any points of concern that need to be addressed.”

Nitrogen hypoxia is caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, which deprives the body of oxygen and kills them.

Proponents claim that this type of execution would be painless, but opponents argue that it is a form of human experimentation. If Alabama moves forward with this method of execution, new legal battles over its constitutionally are more than likely to ensue.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy group that opposes the death penalty, said that the state of Alabama has a history of “failed and flawed executions and execution attempts.” They also said that experimenting with a method that's never been used is a “terrible idea.”

Senior Attorney Angie Setzer, who works for the group, said in a statement, “No state in the country has executed a person using nitrogen hypoxia and Alabama is in no position to experiment with a completely unproven and unused method for executing someone.”

Back in June 2021, South Carolina announced its plans to resume executions after a 10-year hiatus, stating that they will use the electric chair to execute Brad Sigmon on June 18, 2021 and Freddie Owns on June 25, 2021.

However, according to a report from April 2022, there are still 35 men on death row in state of South Carolina and they have not executed an inmate since 2011 due to the inability to obtain the lethal drugs.

As of January 2023, South Carolina lawmakers were still trying to figure out how 14 other states have been able to manage getting drugs for lethal injections, the Associated Press reported
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