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A death row inmate in Alabama who survived a botched lethal injection is set to be executed Thursday using nitrogen gas — a method the UN called “inhuman” and veterinarians have deemed too cruel to use when euthanizing animals.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, will become the country’s first inmate executed by nitrogen gas, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, rejecting Smith’s second attempt to halt the experimental execution, which will use a method the United Nations has likened to “torture,” according to the Times UK.
After spending more than three decades on death row for a 1989 murder-for-hire, Smith will be executed at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama at some time during a 30-hour window that began at 1 a.m. EST Thursday.
Last week, UN spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani urged Alabama to abandon its plans to use nitrogen gas, saying it could “amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment, under international human rights law.”
While nitrogen gas has never been used to kill humans in the US — and Alabama is just one of three states that allows it for execution — the method is sometimes used to euthanize animals.
4 Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, will become the first person executed by nitrogen gas on Thursday. via REUTERS
Despite this, the American Veterinary Medical Association has cautioned against using nitrogen gas to euthanize most mammals, calling the practice “distressing.”
The method, which involves administering nitrogen gas through a facemask and depriving the body of oxygen, may cause the person to suffer unnecessarily and could even threaten the health of others in the room, experts have warned.
Still, officials are set to move forward with Smith’s execution. Judges with the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday said in a 3-2 decision there was “no doubt that death by nitrogen hypoxia is both new and novel” but that the inmate failed to prove the experimental method violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Because we are bound by Supreme Court precedent, Smith cannot say that the use of nitrogen hypoxia, as a new and novel method, will amount to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment by itself,” the majority wrote in its opinion.
4 The new method involves administering nitrogen gas through a facemask and depriving the body of oxygen. AP
Circuit Judge Jill A. Pryor dissented from the decision, saying there were “real doubts” about the protocol and what Smith would experience.
“He will die. The cost, I fear, will be Mr. Smith’s human dignity, and ours,” Pryor wrote in a dissent.
The federal ruling is the second this month that shot down Smith’s attempts to halt the execution, in which his lawyers argued that the state is trying to make the convicted killer the “test subject” for an untried execution method after he survived the state’s previous attempt to put him to death by lethal injection.
Smith’s lawyers are expected to appeal to the US Supreme Court in a last-ditch effort to stop Thursday’s scheduled execution.
The legal team had already tried to request a stay in the highest court, but the Supreme Court rejected Wednesday its argument that it would be unconstitutional for the state to attempt a second execution after he survived the first.
4 Smith has been on death row for over three decades for his involvement in a 1988 murder-for-hire. Find a grave
“Two courts have now rejected Smith’s claims,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said. “I remain confident that the Supreme Court will come down on the side of justice, and that Smith’s execution will be carried out tomorrow.”
The Alabama Department of Corrections tried to give Smith a lethal injection in 2022 but called it off when officials failed to connect the two veins needed to proceed.
Earlier this week, Smith told The Guardian that the botched execution left him with a litany of mental disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Since the failed attempt, the drugs used in lethal injections have become rare, leading Alabama to authorize nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method.
4 Smith survived a botched lethal injection in 2022 which he says left him with PTSD. AP
The state predicts that Smith will lose consciousness within seconds and die within minutes, but critics have slammed the method as too experimental and believe we do not understand the drug’s true effects.
If carried out, Smith’s nitrogen gas execution will be the first time a new method has been introduced since lethal injection was first used in 1982.
Smith was one of two men convicted in the murder-for-hire of a preacher’s wife in 1988. Each man was paid $1,000 to kill Elizabeth Sennett on behalf of her husband, Charles Sennett, who wanted to cash out on insurance.
Her husband died by suicide a week after her death.
There were 24 executions carried out in the US in 2023, all of which used lethal injection.
With Post wires

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