America is to move forward with its first-ever nitrogen gas execution as a US inmate faces the death penalty for a second time.
Barring a successful appeal, murderer Kenneth Smith will be moved to Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility’s “death cell” on Tuesday ahead of his killing on Thursday. It will be the second time the 58-year-old will have gone through the procedure after a previous bungled lethal injection failed to work. Speaking ahead of his execution, Smith said: “I am not ready for that. Not in no kind of way. I’m just not ready, brother.”
The convicted murderer has told how he has been left haunted by a recurring nightmare of being escorted back into the death chamber. He said: “All I had to do was walk into the room in the dream for it to be overwhelming. I was absolutely terrified. It kept coming up.” Smith added: “I dream that they’re coming to get me.”
Alabama attempted to execute him in November 2022 by lethal injection. He was strapped to the gurney in the execution chamber for nearly four hours, being prepared for lethal injection, but the state called it off when staff had difficulty connecting the second of two required intravenous lines to his veins.
Nitrogen hypoxia is authorised as a capital punishment method in Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Still, it has never been used to put an inmate to death. The proposed execution method would use a gas mask placed over Smith’s nose and mouth to replace breathable air with nitrogen, causing the inmate to die from lack of oxygen.
Attorneys for the convicted murderer have argued the new execution method is unconstitutional and also cited religious concerns. His attorneys said the mask, which Alabama intends to place over his face before execution witnesses arrive, would interfere with his ability to pray aloud and make a final statement before his execution.
After Smith is strapped to the gurney, the state said in a court filing that it will place a “NIOSH-approved Type-C full facepiece supplied air respirator” – a type of mask typically used in industrial settings to deliver life-preserving oxygen — over his face.
The warden will then read the death warrant and ask Smith if he has any last words before activating “the nitrogen hypoxia system” from another room. The gas will be administered for at least 15 minutes or “five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer,” according to the state protocol.
The Alabama attorney general’s office told a federal judge that the nitrogen gas would “cause unconsciousness within seconds and cause death within minutes.” On Friday, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals heard differing descriptions of the humaneness and potential risks of the proposed method. The three judges on the panel asked questions about the proposed method, including claims that it could cause Smith to choke to death on his own vomit. They did not indicate when they would rule.
A stay would leave Alabama with a potential problem as US prisons can no longer source the drugs used for lethal injections after the makers banned their use for executions. It is why many states have been left seeking alternative methods with some even considering firing squads.
Prosecutors said Smith and another man were each paid $1,000 to kill Elizabeth Sennett in 1988 by her husband Reverend Charles Sennett, who was in deep debt and wanted to collect on insurance. He killed himself a week after his wife’s death when the murder investigation started to focus on him as a suspect. John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted in the killing, was executed in 2010. Smith was sentenced to death by a judge in 1996, despite a jury voting 11-1 to recommend that he receive life imprisonment.