In the USA, a person sentenced to death has been executed for the first time using a new nitrogen method. 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted of murder in 1996, died on Thursday evening (local time) in a prison in the US state of Alabama using so-called nitrogen hypoxia, Alabama's Attorney General Steve Marshall announced. During the procedure, a person is supplied with nitrogen through a face mask – the result is death from lack of oxygen.
Human rights experts had previously complained that the method was untested and that Smith could die a cruel death. United Nations experts believe it has not been scientifically proven that inhalation of pure nitrogen does not cause serious suffering. Smith's lawyers had tried until the very end to stop the execution. But neither the relevant courts in Alabama nor the US Supreme Court followed their requests. In recent days, demonstrators have also called on the governor of Alabama to intervene. But that didn't happen either.
Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 for his involvement in a contract killing eight years earlier. Smith was actually scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in 2022. However, the prison staff were unable to insert the necessary cannula into his arm: after several hours in which he lay strapped to the execution table, he was taken back to his cell. However, the courts did not consider the failed attempt in 2022 nor the concerns about the new method to be sufficient to stop the nitrogen execution.
Smith's lawyers had argued that he was becoming a kind of test candidate and that far too many questions remained unanswered. In their application, they complained, among other things, that changes had been made to the protocol for the execution just a few days before the date. The lawyers saw this as further evidence of the many uncertainties surrounding an execution with nitrogen. However, the Alabama appeals court rejected the reservations on Wednesday. Smith could not prove that the execution constituted “cruel and unusual” punishment, the decision said. The Supreme Court also rejected a similar request, but gave no reason for it. Another final urgent application to the Supreme Court was also unsuccessful, and was only decided on Thursday evening (local time), immediately before the execution.
When he was convicted in 1996, the jury had originally intended a life sentence for Smith. However, the judge responsible at the time ignored this recommendation and imposed the death penalty. Alabama became the last US state to abolish the law that made this possible in 2017. Smith's execution is the first ever in the United States this year. In 2023, 24 death sentences were carried out across the country. 2,330 people sentenced to death are currently on death row, some of them for decades, as was the case with Smith.