The state of Alabama executed Kenneth Eugene Smith on January 25, 2024 using an experimental method, nitrogen asphyxiation. This prisoner was sentenced to death for murdering Elizabeth Sennett in the late 1980s.

The use of this method for execution, carried out for the first time in this state, has been criticized by anti-death penalty activists and by the United Nations for being inhumane.

It was a process that lasted 32 minutes, of which four of them were spent convulsing due to the nitrogen administered through a mask fitted to his face. The prisoner died, after running out of oxygen, more than half an hour after the execution began.

According to witnesses, he neither lost consciousness instantly nor quickly as state authorities had predicted. Smith, 58, was conscious for several minutes as the gas invaded his lungs, according to eyewitnesses.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, for his part, assured that the method has proven “effective and humane,” despite the “dire predictions” of activists and the media. “Justice has been done,” he added.

Problems with lethal injection

The resort to nitrogen hypoxia, in this case, is due to the problems that lethal injection has been causing in recent years. This method was introduced in 1982 in Texas and in these 42 years it has been used to execute 1,377 convicts. It is considered the most unsuccessful form of execution. In Alabama three unsuccessful attempts to execute a prisoner using this method were recorded in 2022, including Smith’s.

The man sentenced to death had already gone through a similar process in 2022 when an attempt was made to end his life by lethal injection, but given the impossibility of finding the vein, and after four hours tied to the stretcher, he was returned to his cell.

Before the execution he said: “Tonight Alabama makes humanity take a step back. Thanks for your support. I love you all”.

Smith’s execution is the first of its kind carried out nationally in the United States, which opens the door to its future use. This has generated a huge debate about the level of cruelty and pain it can cause for the prisoner.

Where is the death penalty legal?

The death penalty is permitted in 58 countries around the world, but the practice is most prevalent in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United States. These countries represent 82% of all executions carried out worldwide according to Amnesty International.

It is currently allowed in 27 US states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, South Carolina, North Carolina, South Dakota, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

The most common methods of execution are lethal injection, execution by firing squad, stoning and decapitation. In some countries, less common methods are also used, such as the electric chair, gas chamber, or injection of air into the heart.

Bioethical Assessment

The maintenance of the death penalty and the cruel methods used for its execution constitute a flagrant violation of the right to life of every human being, even when their actions will pose a risk to society. It is paradoxical that countries that have promoted the defense of human rights continue to apply the death penalty.

Among the reasons that make the maintenance of the death penalty unacceptable under any circumstances are: the cruelty of the methods used, the long waits from sentencing to execution and the errors that have led to the application of capital punishment to innocent people. For all these reasons, as the executed prisoner Kenneth Eugene Smith stated, it represents a setback for humanity.

Julio Tudela and Cristina Castillo

Bioethics Observatory- Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia

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