Nitrogen Gas Execution: Not as Humane as we Think it Is?

Was this execution simply botched or is the method inherently cruel and unusual?

Valentine Wiggin

--

Alabama recently allowed nitrogen-induced hypoxia to be used as an execution method. This marks the first time a new execution attempt has been introduced since 1982, when lethal injection was first used. Kenneth Eugene Smith, aged 58, survived several execution attempts via lethal injection and died from nitrogen-induced hypoxia on January 25, 2024 at 8:25 pm. The State Attorney General Steve Marshall called this method “humane” and “effective” after Kenneth had been executed.

The execution method works by placing a dedicated over the face of the condemned and pumping nitrogen gas into the mask until the point of death. The mask covers the face from forehead to chin and resembles a gas mask. Mask failures can present risks to those in the room with the person being executed and are advised to stay at least 3 feet away from the masks.

Some people have criticized this execution method for its lack of forethought and consideration for the condemned. Corinna Barrett Lain, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said that the proposal for nitrogen gas execution lacked input from medical professionals. She went on to say that the burden of proving that an execution method isn’t torturous falls on the condemned rather than developers of that method.

The paper says that it would only take “1–2 breaths of pure nitrogen” for the condemned to lose consciousness. Despite that, Kenneth remained conscious for four minutes and “seemed to gasp for air” as the execution took place. Smith’s wife said that he “convulsed” and gasped for air for around ten minutes and that televised news outlets misrepresented what happened.

Witnesses said and that it took anywhere from 22 to 28 minutes for him to die. They gave this time range because the curtain was drawn before Kenneth’s official time of death. During that time, the gurney “shook several times” as the witnesses were “surprised by how bad this thing went”. After that, many people have wondered if they witnessed a botched execution or a torturous one.

The proposal has argued that nitrogen-induced hypoxia isn’t technically asphyxiation because it allows the body to expel carbon dioxide buildup. This supposedly mitigates the unpleasant effects of asphyxiation, such as anxiety and headaches. These…

--

--

Valentine Wiggin

Death-positive, sex-positive, and LGBTQ-affirming Christian. Gen Z. I hate onions. She/her