In a contentious ruling, the Alabama Supreme Court has approved the use of nitrogen gas for the execution of an inmate, marking a novel approach to carrying out a death sentence in the state.
On Wednesday, the all-Republican court, with a majority of 6-2, granted the state attorney general’s request for an execution warrant for Kenneth Eugene Smith. While the court order did not specify the execution method, the Alabama attorney general had previously indicated their intention to employ nitrogen gas to carry out Smith’s execution. The actual date of the execution will be determined later by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
This ruling places Alabama on the cusp of becoming the first state to attempt an execution using nitrogen gas. However, it is anticipated that there will be further legal challenges and debates surrounding this proposed method. Although three states – Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi – have authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, none have actually implemented it.
Kenneth Eugene Smith was one of two individuals convicted for their involvement in the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett in Colbert County, Alabama. Sennett’s family has endured a lengthy 35-year wait for justice, and the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision is seen as a significant step toward that goal, according to Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.
Smith’s legal team had strongly urged the court to reject the execution request, arguing, “The state seeks to make Mr. Smith the test subject for the first-ever attempted execution by an untested and only recently released protocol for executing condemned people by the novel method of nitrogen hypoxia,” as stated in a court filing from September.
Under the proposed nitrogen gas execution method, the inmate would be exposed solely to nitrogen, depriving them of the necessary oxygen to maintain bodily functions, ultimately leading to their death. Nitrogen constitutes 78% of the air humans breathe and is harmless when inhaled alongside oxygen. While proponents of this new method theorize that it is painless, critics have equated it to human experimentation.
It’s worth noting that the state previously attempted to execute Smith via lethal injection last year, an effort that was ultimately called off by the Alabama Department of Corrections due to the inability to establish the required two intravenous lines connected to Smith.
Smith’s legal team had previously accused the state of attempting to expedite his execution by nitrogen in order to render his lawsuit challenging lethal injection procedures irrelevant.
In a dissenting stance, Chief Justice Tom Parker and Justice Greg Cook opposed the court’s decision.
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According to prosecutors, Smith was one of two individuals who received payment of $1,000 each to murder Elizabeth Sennett on behalf of her pastor husband, who was deeply in debt and sought to collect insurance money. The revelation of the murder and the individuals behind it sent shockwaves through the small community in north Alabama, and Sennett’s husband took his own life a week later. The other person convicted in the murder was executed in 2010.