Monday, June 17, 2024

Alabama to carry out US’ 1st nitrogen gas execution despite UN alert, here’s why

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The United Nation has declared that the scheduled nitrogen hypoxia execution of an Alabama death row prisoner this week amounted to “torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

A federal judge recently decided that Alabama can use nitrogen gas to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, who was found guilty of killing a preacher’s wife in 1988 as a murder for hire. Elizabeth Sennett’s husband, who was heavily in debt and wanted to collect payment on insurance, paid Smith and the other man $1,000 each to kill her.He survived the previous attempts of Alabama authorities to execute him by lethal injection in 2022. Should it be implemented, it would be the first new way of execution since the introduction of fatal injection in 1982. The state says that the nitrogen gas will render the victim unconscious very quickly, but opponents have compared this never-before-used method of execution to experiments on humans.Meanwhile, OHCHR Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasan called on Alabama state authorities to halt Smith’s execution that is scheduled for 25-26 January, “and to refrain from taking steps towards any other executions in this manner”.

“Alabama already sought to execute Smith unsuccessfully by lethal injection in 2022. Smith also has ongoing proceedings in federal court against his upcoming execution which have not been finally resolved,” she said in Geneva.

What is nitrogen hypoxia and has this been ever used in the US history?

According to the state’s plans, Smith would die from a lack of oxygen if a respirator-style face mask is placed over his mouth and nose to replace breathable air with nitrogen. Although nitrogen hypoxia has been approved for use as an execution technique in three states – Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, none have applied to carry out a death sentence.

Is this different from gas chamber?

Yes precisely. Historically, several states have carried out executions using the deadly chemical hydrogen cyanide. Walter LaGrand was the last prisoner to be executed in a US gas chamber. He was the second of two German brothers who had been given death sentences for the 1982 bank manager murder in southern Arizona. LaGrand died in 1999 after eighteen minutes.

78% of the air that humans breathe is made up of the colorless, odorless gas nitrogen, which is safe to breathe when combined with the right amount of oxygen. According to the notion of nitrogen hypoxia, if the air is made entirely of nitrogen, Smith will become unconscious and eventually die from a lack of oxygen.

A large portion of nitrogen exposure-related deaths reported in medical journals are the result of suicide attempts and industrial mishaps involving nitrogen leaks or mix-ups that claim workers’ lives.

How will Alabama carry out the execution?

The state stated in a court filing that it will cover Smith’s face with a “NIOSH-approved Type-C full facepiece supplied air respirator”—a kind of mask usually used in industrial settings to give life-preserving oxygen—after Smith is strapped to the gurney in the execution room.

After reading Smith the execution warrant and asking if he has any final remarks, the warden will turn on “the nitrogen hypoxia system” from a separate room. As per the state procedure, the nitrogen gas will be provided for a minimum of fifteen minutes or for five minutes after an EKG flatline indication, whichever is longer.

Is Alabama facing backlash ahead of the execution?

Nitrogen gas will be used as a lethal penalty, despite the fact that veterinarians and medical professionals have denounced this method. In 2020, the American Veterinary Medical Association published recommendations on euthanasia, which stated that while nitrogen hypoxia can be used to end a pig’s life in specific circumstances, it is not a suitable procedure for other mammals due to the creation of a “anoxic environment that is distressing for some species.”

Smith is being considered as a potential “test subject” for a new method of execution, according to his attorneys.

A physician testified on Smith’s behalf stated that the low oxygen level could induce nausea, causing him to choke to death on his own vomit.

The unproven technique “may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international human rights law,” the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warned in a statement.

Any legal challenges ahead?

On Friday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments, when Smith’s attorney will appeal a federal judge’s January 10 decision to allow the execution move forward. They contend that Alabama is attempting to use Smith as a “test subject” for an experimental method of execution because he survived the state’s previous attempt to execute him by lethal injection in 2022.

Because Mr. Smith will be the first condemned person subject to this procedure, his planned execution is an experiment that would not be performed or permitted outside this context,” Smith’s attorneys wrote in the Monday court filing. They also argued that the state violated his due process rights by scheduling the execution when he has pending appeals.

On the other hand, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office will appeal to the court to let the execution proceed.

If the execution in Alabama proceeds, other states might try to use the similar method. However, if the court blocks the execution, it could slow thesearch for nitrogen gas as a substitute for capital punishment.Alabama to carry out US' 1st nitrogen gas execution despite UN alert, here's why

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