Kenneth Smith – Nitrogen Hypoxia’s Test Subject

Luci O'Donnell

“Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards… I'm leaving with love, peace and light”  (The final words of Kenneth Smith, Thursday 25th Jan, William C Holman Prison, Alabama)

(Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm)

What has been justified as “the most humane method of execution ever devised” by the state of Alabama is nothing short of torture. 

After first being sentenced to death row in March 1988, Smith has already survived state execution by lethal injection in 2022. He was strapped to a gurney for four hours, leaving him physically and mentally scarred. The prison’s psychiatrist believed him to be suffering from PTSD and symptoms of anxiety and depression for 14 months until the next attempt on his life. Yet this time it was successful, but at what cost?

“They haven’t given me a chance to heal” he says. “I’m still suffering from the first execution and now we’re doing this again”. 

What we see here isn’t a man who has accepted defeat but a man who is so obviously being tortured for a mistake made 35 years ago. 

Smith’s lawyer, who described such a method of execution as ‘cruel’ and ‘experimental’, failed to push through an 11 hour appeal that was later denied by the US Supreme Court. Finally,  albeit humiliatingly, he was left to rest in January.

The use of nitrogen gas is not only a painfully long process (22 minutes to be exact), but it is a violation of multiple human rights laws. Veterinarians have refused the use of gas as a euthanasia tactic on animals due to the distress it entails, but somehow this is still deemed acceptable for a man? Smith’s exit from our world was one filled with torment and unimaginable pain.

The idea of using nitrogen to suffocate a prisoner to death was first established in 2015 by a man with no scientific or medical training -this says it all really. The process involves strapping an industrial grade mask to the victims head and pumping in pure nitrogen, which, in theory,  deprives its victim of oxygen causing a quick and ultimately painless death. 

However, despite state predictions that the gas would leave Smith unconscious in seconds and dead within minutes, he remained conscious for 7 of the 22 minutes it took for him to pass, “We didn’t see somebody go unconscious in 30 seconds. What we saw was minutes of someone struggling for their life.” 

In Smith’s final days his biggest fear wasn’t the execution itself but that it would be successful and put such a brutal method of punishment on the map. This same fear is shared amongst the Jewish community globally, but particularly in the US. 

“The Nazi legacy of experimentation to find the most expeditious way to rid our community of undesirable prisoners is an undercurrent for anyone who is aware of that history that should not be repeated in Alabama, or anywhere.” Mike Zoosman referring to execution by gas (The Guardian).

One thing that cannot be overlooked is that if Smith faced the same jury today as he did back when he was sentenced, he would still be alive.

Eleven out of twelve jurors voted for his life to be spared. However, 1980s laws permitted the judge to overrule jury recommendations. Since 2017, a judge no longer has the authority to do this.

This speaks to the arbitrary nature of the US death penalty – it is not a game of ‘who’s taken more lives’ but is simply a system of punishment that’s unfair by any means of execution. We are so often fed this lie that the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst in our society when evidently that isn’t at all the case.