Alabama death row: What is nitrogen gas execution and why is it so controversial? Which countries still have the death penalty?

It is the first time the method would be used

An Alabama death row inmate is about to undergo the first ever US execution by nitrogen gas after losing last-minute appeals.

Here, we look at what is nitrogen gas execution and why is it so controversial?

Why is Kenneth Smith on Death Row?

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Death penalty protesters demonstrate outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, in June.Death penalty protesters demonstrate outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, in June.
Death penalty protesters demonstrate outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, in June.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, a 58-year-old convicted killer, had his 2022 lethal injection was called off at the last minute because authorities could not connect an IV line.

Smith is one of two men convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett.

Prosecutors said he and the other man were each paid $1,000 to kill Sennett on behalf of her pastor husband, who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance.

He is in prison in Alabama.

Why is a new method being used to kill him?

Under standard death penalty methods, inmates are killed using lethal injection.

However, the drug used in the injection method, introduced in 1982, is increasingly hard to find and some states are looking for alternatives.

Three states — Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma — have authorised nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but no state has attempted to use the untested method until now.

Alabama plans to put an industrial-type respirator mask over Smith’s face and replace his breathing air with pure nitrogen gas, causing him to die from lack of oxygen.

Alabama plans to strap Smith to a gurney in the execution chamber — the same chamber where he was strapped down for several hours during the lethal injection attempt — and place a “full facepiece supplied air respirator” over his face.

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After he is given a chance to make a final statement, the warden, from another room, will activate the nitrogen gas.

The nitrogen will be administered through the mask for at least 15 minutes or “five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer,” according to the state protocol.

What has the reaction been to using the nitrogen gas method?

The state of Alabama claims the method will be humane, but critics call it cruel and experimental.

Attorneys for Smith have waged a legal battle to halt the execution, arguing that the state is seeking to make Smith the “test case” for the new execution method, which merits more legal scrutiny before it is used on an inmate.

The state has predicted the nitrogen gas will cause unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes and have claimed it will be “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man”.

But some doctors and organisations have raised alarm, saying.

Much of what is known about death by nitrogen gas comes from industrial accidents or suicide attempts.

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“It’s an experiment,” said the Rev Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual advisor and a death penalty opponent.

Opponents have argued the use of a gas mask puts Smith at risk of a prolonged and painful death or choking to death on his own vomit. There are also concerns any leaks may put other people in the room at risk.

In 2020 euthanasia guidelines, the American Veterinary Medical Association wrote nitrogen hypoxia is not an acceptable euthanasia method for most mammals because the anoxic environment “is distressing”.

Experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council cautioned they believe the execution method could violate the prohibition on torture.

His attorneys are expected to make a last-minute appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Which countries still have the death penalty?

A small number of countries including the US still have the death penalty for certain crimes.

Japan is one, where a man has today been sentenced to death after causing a fire at an anime factory in which 35 people were killed.

Others include Taiwan and Singapore. Additionally, capital punishment is also carried out in China, India, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as some other Islamic states.

In 2022, Amnesty International said there had been a 53 percent increase in executions globally.

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