Alabama May Become First State to Execute Inmates Using Gas Mask

Alabama has said that execution by nitrogen hypoxia is more humane than lethal injection.

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Alabama might become the first state to execute inmates via gas mask.

The Birmingham News reports that a recent ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court means the state is that much closer to using the nitrogen hypoxia method. With a gas mask, inmates would breathe in pure nitrogen and no oxygen, which would lead to their deaths.

The nitrogen hypoxia method has been in development for five years, and the newly passed bill says it is more humane than Alabama’s standard practice of lethal injection.

The first inmate the state is looking to excut via gas mask is Kenneth Eugene Smith. Initially, Smith’s attorneys told a federal court that the new method was a better substitute for lethal injection; however, his lawyers are arguing against nitrogen hypoxia, saying it’s experimental.

Though Alabama is moving closer to using gas masks, the state hasn’t outlined how the capital punishment method will work, and if it is truly more humane than lethal injection.

“It is true that nitrogen gas inhalation can kill people? Yes, that’s true,” Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist and intensive care physician at Emory University Hospital told the news outlet. “But whether or not it creates the kind of death that will be seen to be not cruel, there is no evidence that there’s any proof of that at all. [Alabama’s] decision is just to try it and to see what happens. They cannot point to any trial or any experiment or anything to say that they’ve got a method now that won’t be cruel.”

Smith was convicted of murder in 1989 after confessing to his involvement in the murder-for-hire plot of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett in 1988. He was set to be executed in November 2022 by lethal injection, that is until the execution team couldn’t locate any of his veins. This was the second time Alabama unsuccessfully executed an inmate by lethal injection; subsequently, Gov. Kay Ivey postponed executions last year.

Smith requested that he not die by lethal injection, claiming that he was harnessed to a gurney and poked with needles for hours. In December 2022, his attorneys pointed to the alternative method, nitrogen hypoxia, though the state hadn’t said it was prepared to use gas masks during executions at the time.

“Mr. Smith is thus in a rare position of having proof that an execution by lethal injection caused him severe pain, despite a feasible and available alternative―nitrogen hypoxia―that would have entirely avoided the veinous access issue, and assuming proper administration, would cause an individual to lose consciousness within seconds, and experience no pain or discomfort while dying within minutes,” Smith’s lawyers said in his amended lawsuit. “That feasible and available alternative method of execution significantly reduces the intolerable risk of torture, cruelty, or substantial pain associated with Defendants’ lethal injection process.”

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