(CMR) Alabama executed a death row prisoner Thursday using nitrogen gas, becoming the first state in the United States to use the gas in an execution, despite concerns about the untested method.
Kenneth Smith (58) died at 8:25 pm Central Time after a slew of last-minute appeals to several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, failed.
The execution reportedly started at 7:53 pm, with Smith giving his last words at about 7:55 pm, according to John Hamm, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
“Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step backwards. I'm leaving with love, peace, and light. Thank you for supporting me. I love all of you,” Smith said.
According to NPR, Hamm said nitrogen flowed for around 15 minutes and was administered through a mask. Two execution workers, in addition to Smith's spiritual adviser, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, looked on. Media witnesses said Smith appeared conscious for about ten minutes. He shook and writhed for about two minutes on the gurney, followed by approximately five minutes of heavy breathing.
Smith, who was sentenced to death for his role in a 1988 murder for hire, had already survived a botched execution attempt by lethal injection. In 2022, workers tried and failed to place the intravenous line necessary to kill him with lethal injection drugs. After he was strapped to the gurney for four hours, the execution was called off.
Concerns about nitrogen gas as a method of execution have swirled around this case for several months. The Alabama attorney general's office has said that nitrogen hypoxia is “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man.”
Although researchers have used the gas to kill animals, in 2020, the American Veterinary Medical Association deemed it “unacceptable” as an euthanization method for all mammals except pigs since it could be “distressing.”
“Everybody is telling me I'm going to suffer. I'm absolutely terrified,” Smith told NPR in December.
After the first execution failed, Smith's lawyers requested Alabama not attempt another by lethal injection and requested nitrogen gas, the secondary method approved in the state. But before Smith's second execution date was scheduled, his lawyers argued against the gas, alleging that using an untested method in a second attempt to execute him would violate his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Both state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, denied the appeals.