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Alabama man on death row: Why has Alabama executed a man using nitrogen gas?

Alabama has recently executed death row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith using a novel and controversial method—nitrogen gas. This untested approach, which had never been used by any US state before, has sparked debates surrounding its ethics, efficacy, and potential for unintended consequences.

Background and Execution Attempts

Originally scheduled for a lethal injection in November 2022, Smith’s execution faced complications as prison staff struggled for an hour to insert the second intravenous (IV) line required for the injection. Following this failed attempt, Alabama authorities opted for an unconventional alternative—nitrogen gas.

Lethal Injection Challenges

Lethal injection has been the primary method for executions in the United States in recent decades. However, difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs, along with the lack of a standardized procedure, have led to complications and challenges in execution attempts. Some drug manufacturers refuse to sell lethal injection drugs for ethical reasons, creating a supply issue for states that still use this method.

Rise of Alternate Execution Methods

In the quest for alternatives, Alabama approved the use of nitrogen gas in 2018. Texas, facing similar challenges with lethal injection, has turned to a secret list of private “compounding pharmacies” to source deadly chemicals for executions.

What is Nitrogen Hypoxia?

Nitrogen gas, which makes up a significant portion of Earth’s atmosphere, was administered to Smith through a mask. While nitrogen itself is not poisonous, inhaling concentrated nitrogen gas leads to nitrogen hypoxia, choking off oxygen to the brain. This method has been approved by three states, and its proponents argue that it is a humane alternative.

Controversies and Criticisms

Critics argue that nitrogen hypoxia is untested and carries inherent risks. Dr. Jeff Keller, President of the American College of Correctional Physicians, deems it an experimental procedure with the potential for complications. Deborah Denno, a criminologist, questions the airtightness of the masks used and highlights potential issues such as vomiting or incomplete unconsciousness.

Legal and Ethical Debate

Despite legal challenges and concerns, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has hailed nitrogen gas as “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised.” The recent execution and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear legal challenges add to the ongoing discourse surrounding the ethics of execution methods.

Changing Landscape of Death Penalty Sentiment

The use of nitrogen gas and the challenges associated with traditional execution methods coincide with a broader shift in public sentiment against the death penalty. The declining number of executions and increasing scrutiny of lethal injection underscore the evolving landscape surrounding capital punishment in the United States.

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