On Wednesday, January 10, 2024, The New York Sun reported that an Alabama judge approved the state’s plan to conduct the United States’ first execution using nitrogen gas.
Judge R. Austin Huffaker of the U.S. District Court rejected a request from death row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith’s lawyers to block his scheduled January 25 execution. Smith was sentenced to death for the contract killing of Elizabeth Sennett in 1995. His lawyers argued that being subjected to nitrogen hypoxia would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited under the U.S. Constitution.
The new execution method has faced intense criticism from medical professionals and human rights advocates. They warn that while nitrogen gas inhalation may appear painless as the condemned simply loses consciousness, the procedure could actually cause violent seizures before death. Anesthesiologist Joel Zivot noted the description of nitrogen gas executions as “humane” inappropriately compares a medical act with cruelty. Along with Professor Jon Yorke of Birmingham City University, Zivot submitted a complaint about Smith’s execution to the United Nations last year. Four U.N. human rights experts subsequently urged Alabama not to move forward with the untested procedure, saying it risks subjecting Smith to a “painful and humiliating death.”
Judge Huffaker’s approval of Alabama’s execution plan opened the door for Smith to be the first person executed using nitrogen hypoxia in the U.S. His lawyers are expected to appeal Huffaker’s ruling and may ultimately bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that nitrogen gas executions are unconstitutionally cruel. However, the judge’s decision affirmed the state’s argument that the Constitution does not prevent a chosen execution method as long as it does not involve “unnecessary cruelty.” Critics maintain nitrogen gas poses a risk of cruel suffering and that its use would violate international human rights law.
Source: The New York Sun