Eliyahu Gasson | Opinions Editor
Last week’s execution of Kenneth Smith in Alabama marked the start of a new dark age for the United States justice system.
Nitrogen hypoxia, the method used to kill Smith, was sold as “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man” by the Alabama Attorney General’s office.
Nitrogen hypoxia works by quickly displacing breathable oxygen and replacing it with nitrogen gas. The lack of oxygen causes the inmate to fall unconscious and, after some time, die. Subsequently, the quick release of nitrogen gas prevents high buildup of carbon dioxide. The result, as the theory goes, is that this prevents panic in the individual, allowing for a quick and euphoric death.
A gas mask attached to a tank of nitrogen is strapped to the inmate’s face and, once the warden gives the go-ahead, the gas is turned on. In a few minutes, the patient is dead with no pain.
The state of Alabama wants the rest of the country to believe that they have discovered the cleanest and most humane way to kill.
The goal is noble. If the state is going to kill people as punishment it is more desirable that there be as little stress for the prisoner and as little cleanup for prison staff as possible.
This follows basic utilitarian ideology, that we ought to do what benefits the most people.
Nitrogen hypoxia has already been proposed as a method of assisted suicide.
The Sarco, created by Australian euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke, is a large 3D printed sarcophagus designed to allow for comfortable and painless death.
Where the Sarco is a sleek and modern device, designed by experts with the intent of allowing people to peacefully and voluntarily end their lives, Alabama’s solution is a cheap and messy workaround to deal with shortages of drugs used in lethal injections.
The mask which Alabama used in its trial run of nitrogen hypoxia executions is inadequate.
In an interview given to the Messenger, Nitschke said that the nitrogen hypoxia via face mask only works if said mask forms a perfect airtight seal. A task that is nearly impossible.
An airtight seal is unlikely to form if the person being executed has facial hair like Smith did at the time of his death. There is also the risk of gaps forming in the seal when the inmate becomes unconscious due to the relaxation of face muscles.
In either case, the inmate is likely to suck in oxygenated air, diluting the nitrogen they are supposed to be breathing, prolonging or even preventing their death.
If they do avoid death, the chances are good that they may encounter brain damage due to lack of oxygen.
The stress of dying could make the situation even worse.
Alabama had tried to kill Smith on the same gurney in 2022 via lethal injection. They had to abort the execution due to their inability to locate a vein to insert the IV into.
Undoubtedly, the room and the furniture in it would have triggered memories for Smith. He was back for round two, the state’s second chance to kill him.
In his interview with the Messenger, Nitschke described Smith’s state of mind when he visited him in prison. He described Smith as an “‘anxious’ person who is not at peace with his death and does not want to die.” Smith said himself that he was scared of what could happen to him during the execution in an interview with the Guardian.
Nitschke told Smith that the stress of the situation may lead to him vomiting into the mask, in which case, no one on the prison staff would help him and he’d die choking on his own vomit.
Alabama continues to insist that the execution method tested on Smith was effective.
“What occurred last night was textbook,” Attorney General Steve Marshall said at a press conference on Friday.
Smith’s execution by nitrogen hypoxia took about 22 minutes from the opening to the closing of the viewing room curtains. The Associated Press reported, “Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes. For at least two minutes, he appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney, sometimes pulling against the restraints. That was followed by several minutes of heavy breathing, until breathing was no longer perceptible.”
Smith had been on death row since 1988. He spent 36 of his 58 years alive waiting to die, and this is how it happened.
States now have a cheap way to kill prisoners. They no longer need to concern themselves with the shortage of lethal injection drugs. Alabama used Smith as a guinea pig to demonstrate that their execution solution is a viable alternative and insist it is painless for the condemned.
Evidently, Alabama is wrong. Regardless, two other states have already approved nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method including Mississippi and Oklahoma.
According to Marshall, 43 other Alabama inmates have selected nitrogen hypoxia as their method of execution.