World’s first nitrogen gas execution eviscerated by experts

Kenneth Eugene Smith died within 22 minutes after being put to death by nitrogen gas hypoxia (Picture: AP / Rex)

Experts have spoken out against the use of nitrogen gas as an execution method for death row prisoners in the US.

Murderer-for-hire Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, became the first person in the world to be put to death using the untested method overnight in Alabama.

Witnesses say the ‘horrific’ execution saw him die within 22 minutes, convulsing in his chair and tugging against his restraints before losing consciousness.

State authorities initially claimed he would fall unconscious within seconds and die within minutes, but the outcome was very different.

Professor Jon Yorke, director of the Centre for Human Rights at Birmingham City University, told Metro.co.uk: ‘So, in a circumstance when a human body is in a non-traumatic state, nitrogen will produce a quick death, yes.

‘But what [the authorities] don’t understand is that in the death penalty, this is a different cauldron of death. Because the inmate is not consenting.

‘When we are in stressful circumstances, time moves at a different pace; we feel it differently. Time becomes heavier and then that does have an adverse reaction on our life, and how we experience life.

‘To really understand it, you have to put that lens in the context of death, of dying, and that compounds it. So in my opinion, as a human rights lawyer, I would say that this length of time from the beginning to the end of maybe just short of 20 minutes is inhumane.’

The murderer-for-hire, 58, was killed using the untested method overnight in Alabama (Picture: Alabama Department of Correction)

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Reverend doctor Jeff Hood, left, comforted Smith’s wife Deanna after the execution (Picture: EPA)

He said his authority for making this assessment is based on the findings of the Human Rights Committee regarding a case in 1994, which concluded execution by gas cyanide was inhumane punishment.

This punishment brought about death in around 17 minutes – a similar timeframe to that seen in Smith’s execution overnight.

‘An unambiguous definition of cruelty’

Dr Joel Zivot, a senior fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who works against the use of science and medicine as an arm of state power, told Metro.co.uk it was ‘reasonable’ to assume Smith was in great pain.

‘The execution was exactly as I’d anticipated, which was that it would be torturous,’ he said.

‘And the reason why it also is cruel, is because afterwards Alabama Department of Corrections said the execution went exactly as planned.

‘So, to my mind, they’re acknowledging that they always meant to torture him to death. That was their plan. So therefore to me, that is an unambiguous definition of cruelty.’

Dr Joel Zivot said in his view, the execution of Smith was ‘torturous’

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He added the state made it difficult for the few eyewitnesses allowed to witness the execution to make accurate testimony, because they weren’t able to record or use their phones – making the process ‘very opaque’ rather than transparent.

‘This of course flies in the face of the scientific method, which is all about scrutable truth,’ Dr Zivot explained. ‘The whole point of science is that it can prove something wrong… so if you can’t prove it wrong, it isn’t science. It’s mythology.’

‘The worst thing I’ve ever witnessed’

Reverend doctor Jeff Hood, who acted as Smith’s spiritual guide throughout his execution, broke down as he described ‘the worst thing he’d ever witnessed’.

‘When they turned the nitrogen on, he began to convulse, he popped up on the gurney over and over again, he shook the whole gurney,’ he said.

‘[Smith] kept breathing for what could possibly be up to nine minutes, 10 minutes… unbelievable evil was unleashed tonight in Alabama.’

Smith’s final words were delivered through his gas mask, where he made a heart sign with his left hand to his family then said: ‘Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards… I’m leaving with love, peace and light.’

Experts including Professor Yorke filed a 60-page complaint to the United Nations ahead of the procedure.

The UN issued a press release expressing ‘alarm’ over the execution, and called for it to be halted pending a review citing concerns Smith may be subjected to inhuman, cruel or degrading treatment.

And Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor has described the new method as ‘the chemical equivalent of being burned at the stake’. But last-minute appeals were unsuccessful.

Professor Jon Yorke speaking at a press conference about the new nitrogen gas method (Picture: Eliza Harris / Amicus)

Sian Elvin interviewing Professor Yorke and Dr Zivot over Zoom call last week (Picture: Eliza Harris / Amicus)

Professor Yorke added: ‘My initial reaction [to the execution] is that I think it sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

‘The first thing is that Alabama could start to speed up these executions.

‘[The state previously saw] three botched executions following a lethal injection. They were they were all subjected to hours on the gurney, trying to find veins and slicing arms open to search for the veins.

‘So if those procedures took hours, Alabama might reflect upon that and say nitrogen is a better method.

‘The other problem is that it’s not just about the the imposition of the death – it’s how we get to the death chamber, the unfairnesses that have been produced.

‘If that happens in other cases, Alabama has now created an easier method to kill people. So it’s not just about the science of death.’

Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 for killing preacher’s wife Elizabeth Sennett in 1988, which he was paid $1,000 (£800) to carry out.

He claimed he did not know a murder was going to happen, and a judge overruled the jury’s decision for life imprisonment without parole.

Anti-death penalty activists protested in Alabama ahead of the execution (Picture: AP)

Smith was sentenced to death in 1996 for killing preacher’s wife Elizabeth Sennett and has been on death row for 35 years (Picture: AP)

Smith underwent an execution attempt by lethal injection in 2022, but it was called off after he spent four hours strapped to the gurney because authorities were unable to connect the intravenous lines to his veins.

Alabama State Department praised the new nitrogen gas hypoxia method as an ‘effective and humane method of execution’.

‘Torture is now legal in America’

Alabama state governor Kay Ivey said: ‘On March 18, 1988, 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett’s life was brutally taken from her by Kenneth Eugene Smith.

‘After more than 30 years and attempt after attempt to game the system, Mr Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes.

‘I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss.’

Dr Zivot added: ‘Oh, they will do this again – they think they’ve done a wonderful job. And of course, what they’ve also learned is that yet again, the court is on their side.

‘There’s nothing that stops them now they’ve been given the bright green light by the highest court in the land.

‘So they will do it again. And again. And so will other states who have now heard that this is fine. So now, torture is legal in America.’

Smith was put to death at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama (Picture: AP)

Smith’s mugshot from when he was initially convicted decades ago (Picture: WHNT / CBS)

Death penalty charities have also spoken out against the new method of execution.

Margot Ravenscroft, the executive director of UK charity Amicus which fights for access to justice and a fair process for those on death row in the US, told Metro.co.uk: ‘This execution represents a very unscientific and dangerous precedent.

‘After the death penalty has rightly been in decline for so long it is quite shocking that Alabama has chosen to conduct such an exhibition killing, on a man already an execution attempt survivor, using untested nitrogen.

‘This whole process is widely condemned as breaching basic rights against torture, as clearly set out by the UN, academics and medial experts.’

Maya Foa, the US director of Reprieve, which fights for justice for those facing human rights abuses, said: ‘What we saw last night in Alabama was the state violently taking a human life.

‘Kenneth Smith died strapped to a stretcher, terrified and desperately fighting for breath. He had already suffered the trauma of one failed execution attempt. This was torture for him.

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‘We have been here before with lethal injection, which was touted as a “humane” method of execution from the start and has proved to be anything but.

‘Autopsies show that prisoners lungs often fill with fluid, so they feel like they are drowning or being waterboarded. But this suffering is hidden: the whole purpose of these methods of execution is to mask pain.

‘We don’t yet know what internal damage forcefully starving the human body of oxygen does because so far only Alabama has been cruel and reckless enough to try this grotesque experiment. 

‘Alabama is predictably claiming that this dangerous experimental method is now “proven”. Executing states are constantly looking for ways to pretend that executions are medical and modern, not brutal and violent.

‘They said lethal injection was humane – that was a lie. They’re claiming this execution was humane, and that is a lie, too.’

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