New Death Penalty Method Sparks Debate

( – Alabama is potentially on the cusp of a significant legal milestone as it seeks to employ an untested method of execution, involving the administration of pure nitrogen, in the case of death row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith. While this approach has been sanctioned by three states, it has yet to be utilized in practice.

Alabama’s Attorney General, Steve Marshall, recently filed a request with the state Supreme Court to set an execution date for Smith, who is 58 years old and has been on death row for nearly three and a half decades. The notable aspect of this filing is that it indicates Alabama’s intent to proceed with nitrogen hypoxia as the method of execution.

Smith, one of two individuals convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire of a preacher’s wife, Elizabeth Sennett, has managed to evade his death sentence for an extended period, which has drawn criticism from Marshall, who referred to it as a “travesty.”

Nitrogen hypoxia is characterized by compelling the inmate to breathe pure nitrogen, depriving them of oxygen and causing death. Normally, the air we breathe contains 78% nitrogen, but it is harmless when combined with oxygen.

Alabama introduced nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method in 2018 during a period when there was a shortage of the drugs typically used in lethal injections. Nevertheless, the state has not yet employed this method for carrying out death sentences. Similarly, Oklahoma and Mississippi have authorized nitrogen hypoxia but have refrained from implementing it.

Supporters of this novel execution method contend that it would be painless, while opponents argue that it constitutes a form of human experimentation. Alabama’s decision to pursue nitrogen hypoxia is expected to ignite fresh legal disputes regarding its constitutionality.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a legal advocacy organization opposing the death penalty, expressed concerns over Alabama’s past execution attempts, describing them as “failed and flawed.” They view experimenting with an unproven and unused execution method as a perilous course of action. According to Angie Setzer, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, “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.”

Alabama’s previous attempt to execute Smith via lethal injection faltered last year due to difficulties in inserting an IV into his veins. This was the second failure in two months and the third since 2018. In response, the state’s governor, Kay Ivey, temporarily halted executions to conduct an internal review of lethal injection procedures, but they resumed last month.

Although Alabama has been working on developing the nitrogen hypoxia execution method for several years, it has disclosed few specifics about its plans. Corrections Commissioner John Hamm recently mentioned that a protocol was nearing completion, but the attorney general’s court filing did not provide details on the execution procedure. Smith and other Alabama inmates seeking to avoid lethal injection have asserted their right to opt for nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative method.

The tragic case revolves around the murder of Elizabeth Sennett in her Colbert County home on March 18, 1988. Prosecutors alleged that Smith and another man were each paid $1,000 to carry out the murder on behalf of her husband, who was mired in financial debt and sought to collect insurance money.

The husband, Charles Sennett, and a pastor at the Church of Christ, took his own life when he became a suspect in the investigation. The other man convicted in the murder was executed in 2010.