A day after Alabama became the first state to execute a prisoner with nitrogen gas, authorities vowed Friday to continue using the method in executions, despite testimony that the prisoner twisted on the stretcher for at least two minutes.
Two very different accounts of the execution emerged from the state death chamber in Atmore, Alabama, where the state executed Kenneth Smith, 58, Thursday evening.
State Attorney General Steve Marshall called the execution a “textbook” that made nitrogen hypoxia, as the process is called, a “tried and true” method that other states could emulate.
“Alabama did it, and now you can too,” Mr. Marshall said, addressing his counterparts across the country. “And we are ready to help you implement this method in your states.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Smith’s spiritual adviser and journalists who also witnessed the execution described an intense reaction in which Mr. Smith violently shook and writhed as the gas was administered to him , started breathing heavily and eventually stopped moving.
The descriptions were at odds with what the state had promised in court documents: that the untested method of using nitrogen gas through a face mask would “rapidly lower the oxygen level in the mask, ensuring a loss of consciousness in a few seconds.
“It was terrible,” said Deborah Denno, an expert on execution methods at Fordham University Law School. “Pain for two to four minutes, especially when you’re talking about someone who is choking to death, that’s a very long time and a torturous time.”
Mr. Marshall gave prison officials the green light to begin pumping nitrogen into Mr. Smith’s mask at 7:56 p.m., about a minute before witnesses reported that the prisoner began writhing uncontrollably.
Lee Hedgepeth, an Alabama journalist who witnessed the execution, wrote: a detailed account of his observations in which he said Mr Smith began “struggling against the straps” of the stretcher at 7.57 p.m., “his whole body and head shaking violently back and forth for several minutes”.
Then, Mr. Hedgepeth wrote, Mr. Smith began to feel nauseous, and by 8 p.m. he was still out of breath, his body pulling on the restraints with each gasp, although with less force.
Criticism of the execution has poured in from around the world, from organizations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union and Amnesty International. The White House press secretary said the Biden administration was “deeply troubled” by reports of Mr. Smith’s death.
Mr. Marshall said 43 other prisoners currently on death row in the state opted for the nitrogen hypoxia method under a law passed several years ago, allowing them to choose this method rather than lethal injection. The state notoriously botched a series of lethal injections, including an attempted execution of Mr. Smith in 2022.
He was one of three men convicted of the 1988 murder of a woman, Elizabeth Sennett, whose pastor husband had recruited them to kill her.
“I think we will definitely have more executions for nitrogen hypoxia in Alabama,” Mr. Marshall said.
Over the past 15 years, states have faced an embarrassing series of botched executions and increasing difficulties in obtaining the drugs needed for lethal injections. Some pondered the pros and cons of old methods like electrocution and firing squads, while others saw more promise in new drug cocktails or nitrogen hypoxia, which suffocates the prisoner by replacing the air with pure nitrogen.
Still other states, including New Hampshire, Colorado, and Virginia, have abolished the death penalty entirely. (A total of 27 states and the federal government have the death penalty.) Although a majority of Americans still approve of capital punishment, the level of support for it has declined, from 80 percent in 1994 to the middle 50s in recent years. according to Gallup. Last November, Gallup found that half of Americans believe the death penalty is applied unfairly, a record number.
Experts say support for the death penalty wanes when executions are botched or methods are considered unusual or inhumane.
Alabama is one of three states – Oklahoma and Mississippi being the others – to have authorized the use of nitrogen in executions. Although the gas has been used in physician-assisted suicides, Alabama’s chosen method — administering the gas through a mask — differs from common practice and has raised concerns that a leak could endanger others people present in the death chamber; that Mr. Smith could vomit into his mask; or that oxygen could mix with nitrogen.
Robin Maher, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Mr. Smith’s death in no way demonstrated the reliability of the method and that human error was always a factor. “Risk is inherent in this procedure, and there will be no way of knowing whether it will be like this next time, whether it will be worse or whether it will be better,” she said.
She added that she doesn’t think other states will follow suit. “I hope and expect that other states will not want to take on the risks that Alabama is taking,” she said.
Nebraska is one state considering doing so. Parliament abolished the death penalty in 2015, but voters reinstated it in a referendum the following year. Shortly thereafter, the state saw its supply of lethal injection drugs expire and was unable to carry out executions.
“Given the outcome of the Alabama case, we are confident that this will be a hotly debated bill in our state,” said Sen. Loren Lippincott, a Republican and sponsor of the bill. a bill that would approve the use of nitrogen, in a written statement. . “If this option is presented to us, we are confident that the Nebraska Department of Corrections will use this method to deliver humane justice to the victims’ families and our community.”
The Rev. Jeff Hood, an Arkansas-based pastor who was Mr. Smith’s spiritual adviser in the execution chamber, disputed the notion that the execution went as authorities had planned.
He said he saw prison officials in the room who seemed “visibly surprised at how bad things had gone.”
Experts said it’s almost common for execution methods presented as humane or painless to turn out to be much more complicated – either inherently, as with the use of cyanide gas, or because of human error . Autopsies and execution reports have repeatedly suggested that executed prisoners were not given enough sedatives to render them unconscious.
There will always be debate about the experience of executions and the suffering of prisoners like Mr. Smith, said Ms. Maher of the Death Penalty Information Center.
“The only person who can tell us about it is now dead,” she said.