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UN raises alarms over US using nitrogen hypoxia in Alabama execution

Kenneth Eugene Smith, found guilty in the 1988 murder-for-hire case of Elizabeth Sennett, has been on death row for over 30 years.
The symbol of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters.
Posted at 4:53 PM, Jan 03, 2024

United Nations experts say they are “alarmed” at the prospect of the use of “untested” nitrogen gas for the execution of an inmate in Alabama, citing potential for cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment or “even torture.”

Scheduled for execution on Jan. 25, Kenneth Eugene Smith could become the first person in the United States to be executed using nitrogen gas. However, experts are concerned about potential severe suffering, and they highlight the lack of scientific evidence supporting a different outcome.

"We are concerned that nitrogen hypoxia would result in a painful and humiliating death," a group of experts stated in a press release, including Morris Tidball-Binz, Alice Jill Edwards, Tlaeng Mofokeng, and Margaret Satterthwaite, who are part of the Human Rights Council's special procedures program to investigate and advise on global human rights issues.

“Punishments that cause severe pain or suffering, beyond harms inherent in lawful sanctions likely violate the Convention against Torture to which the United States is a party, and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment that guarantees that no detainee shall be subjected to medical or scientific experimentation which may be detrimental to his health,” the experts noted.

Last month, The Associated Press reported that a federal judge, who is currently deliberating on whether to proceed with the execution by nitrogen hypoxia, has recommended that Alabama modify its procedures. The suggestion is to allow the inmate to pray and utter final words before the gas mask is placed on his face.

Smith, found guilty in the 1988 murder-for-hire case of Elizabeth Sennett, has been on death row for over 30 years, and an attempt to execute him with lethal injection failed in Nov. 2022. Now, with Alabama's newly approved executions protocol, the state can use nitrogen gas asphyxiation instead.

According to the AP, Smith’s lawyers also argued that the new execution method is unconstitutional, saying that Alabama wants to use him as a "test case" for an experimental execution method and requested that the federal judge block the execution.

This execution method involves putting a gas mask over Smith's nose and mouth, replacing the air with nitrogen and causing him to die from oxygen deprivation.