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America's First Nitrogen Execution

This past January 25, Alabama established a new milestone to implement the kindest, safest, simplest, and most practical method of execution known to man—nitrogen asphyxiation.

Oklahoma was the first state to adopt this new procedure. In April 2015, Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill to allow it, and on March 14, 2018, Attorney General Mike Hunter and Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh approved it as the primary method of execution. In March 2018, Alabama became the third state, after Oklahoma and Mississippi, to accept nitrogen asphyxiation for execution. But until now, no nitrogen executions had taken place. Finally after a six year delay, Alabama became the first state to actually perform it.

Alabama’s new execution protocol at the Atmore prison uses the same gurney that had been used for lethal injection and a “full facepiece supplied air respirator” to be placed over the prisoner’s face. After a chance to make a final statement, the warden, from another room, would introduce the nitrogen through the mask for at least 15 minutes or “five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer.”

On January 25, 2024, 58 year old Kenneth Eugene Smith was strapped onto the gurney where he made his final statement, “I’m leaving with love, peace and light.” Then he made the “I love you sign” with his hands facing his family members who were present as witnesses. “Thank you for supporting me. Love, love all of you.” Then he passed away after receiving the 22 minute oxygen deprivation procedure.

Governor Kay Ivey said the execution was justice for the murder-for-hire of 45-year-old Elizabeth Sennett in 1988. He had viciously stabbed her ten times.

Alabama’s previous attempt to execute Smith by lethal injection in 2022 had been called off because the prison staff couldn’t find a vein to connect an IV line.

The state had predicted the nitrogen procedure would cause unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes. State Attorney General Steve Marshall admitted that it “has now proved to be an effective and humane method of execution.”

We now have a beginning to avoid the lengthy, expensive, and cruel waiting periods of many years for death row inmates to be eliminated with swift, safe, and humane justice for both the condemned and the public.

Nitrogen asphyxiation (or hypoxia by nitrogen) might seem like just tying a plastic bag over one’s head and letting him suffocate. But that is not the way it’s done. Carbon dioxide quickly builds up and causes the subject to suffer a great deal of stress. For a humane execution, suffering is not desired. The subject must go to sleep peacefully, and in no uncertain terms.

Death is not caused by the nitrogen; it is physiologically inert. Death is caused by the absence of oxygen. The purpose of adding pure nitrogen is to vent out the CO2 and prevent the trauma that it causes.

The procedure is simple. Ordinary people with no special training can perform it, and no special equipment or facilities are required. The subject is strapped into a chair or onto a gurney, and an airtight hood is placed over his head and sealed around his neck. A hose is attached to introduce the nitrogen, and a small opening on the front near the bottom can allow the exhaled carbon dioxide to escape.

A cylindrical tank like those used in welding shops can provide the nitrogen. After it de-pressurizes, it is very cold and prone to fogging. It would pass through several feet of metal pipe to warm it to room temperature before being administered.

The subject breathes normally. With the constant removal of the CO2, he feels like he is breathing normal air and is not subjected to the hypercapnic alarm response caused by inhaling excess CO2. There is no panic sensation. In as little as a minute or two, he loses consciousness. In as little as a few minutes, he stops breathing. At this point, the nitrogen can be turned off. To ensure a certain death, the hood would remain in place another 30 minutes or more. A doctor or nurse would be present to determine and pronounce death.

Since the body is not contaminated with any poisons or chemicals, it is perfectly safe to use for organ donations. Lethally injected bodies cannot be used for this purpose.

The procedure is absolutely safe for all personnel and bystanders. No dangerous chemicals or any special containment room is needed. The spent nitrogen and CO2 are simply vented into the air. They are perfectly harmless. Don’t forget that the air we breathe every day is 79% nitrogen and a small amount of CO2 is already present.

Nevertheless, the new procedure had plenty of detractors. Sant’Egidio Community, a Vatican-affiliated Catholic charity based in Rome, urged Alabama not to go through with the execution and claimed it was “barbarous” and “uncivilized.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and two others argued, “Having failed to kill Smith on its first attempt, Alabama has selected him as its ‘guinea pig’ to test a method of execution never attempted before. The world is watching.”

The world is certainly watching. It is probably asking, “How can you develop a new procedure without testing it?”

REFERENCES:

1. Wikipedia, Inert Gas Asphyxiation.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inert_gas_asphyxiation

2. Slate, Death by Nitrogen.

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2014/05/death-by-nitrogen-gas-will-the-new-method-of-execution-save-the-death-penalty.html

3. Quora, Why is nitrogen asphyxiation not used in capital punishment? https://www.quora.com/Why-is-nitrogen-asphyxiation-not-used-in-capital-punishment

4. Chandler, Kim, Alabama executes a man with nitrogen gas, the first time the new method has been used, January 26, 2024.

https://apnews.com/article/nitrogen-execution-death-penalty-alabama-699896815486f019f804a8afb7032900

 

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