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Alabama is executing a death row inmate he tried to kill with the experimental method of nitrogen asphyxiation in 2022

For the second time this Thursday, Alabama achieved its goal of killing Kenneth Eugene Smith. Its governor, Kay Ivey, confirmed that the southern US state had executed the prisoner using an experimental method: nitrogen asphyxiation. Smith, whose death was confirmed at 8:25 p.m. local time, was sentenced to death in the late 1980s for the contract killing of a preacher's wife. Alabama tested the technique, criticized as “inhumane” by anti-death penalty activists and the United Nations, on an inmate it had previously sent to the gallows to receive a lethal injection in 2022. So it wasn't possible; They didn't find the vein. After being tied to the stretcher for four hours, he was returned to his cell.

Witnesses to Thursday's execution for nitrogen hypoxia described “two to four minutes of convulsions” and “five minutes of heavy breathing” and reported Smith saying, “Tonight, Alabama is making humanity take a step back.” Thank you for your support. I love you all.” As the gas began to flow, he looked at his wife and added, “I love you.”

Ivey's office, which chose not to attend the execution, released a text saying: “After more than 30 years and one attempt after another to deceive the system, Mr. Smith has answered for his terrible crimes.” I pray that the family of [la víctima] Elizabeth Sennett can recover after all the time she has spent coping with this great loss.” For his part, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall assured that, despite the “dark predictions” of activists and the media, the method has proven to be “effective and humane “have proven. “Justice has been served,” he added.

At around 7:00 p.m., the Supreme Court confirmed a decision from the previous day that rejected the postponement of the execution. After the last option was exhausted, the witnesses, including five journalists who were allowed to witness the execution, the condemned man's lawyers, Smith's wife and the children of the murderer and the victim, got into a van that drove to Holman Prison. in the town of Atmore to witness the condemned man's final moments.

Inside, they watched as prison officials placed an airtight mask on him and then left the room, leaving him alone with his confessor, the Rev. Jeff Hood. Then the guard activated the mechanism to release the nitrogen in the body of the 58-year-old executed man until the oxygen was removed from his body and caused his death.

Smith spent his final hours saying goodbye to his wife and family and ordering a final lunch — ribeye steak, hash browns and eggs — from fast-food chain Waffle House. Meanwhile, his lawyers asked the Supreme Court to stop the execution in extreme cases. The defense argument persisted in doubts about the procedure, even though it was Smith himself who chose hypoxia when given the choice after the failure of the previous attempt at lethal injection. Doctors, anti-death penalty activists and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shared concerns that death would be slow and painful, that inhalation of the gas would cause vomiting, and that the prisoner would drown; that the gas would not do its job and he would remain in a vegetative state, or that there would be a fatal leak for Reverend Hood.

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Subscribe toSentenced to death in AlabamaDemonstration last Tuesday in front of the Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, to demand that Governor Kay Ivey stop the execution of Smith. Center, from left, three exonerated death row inmates, Randall Padgent, Gary Drinkard and Ron Wright. Mickey Welsh (AP)

The Supreme Court's decision was accompanied by the dissenting opinion of liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, which was based on the certainty that Alabama had already failed on a previous occasion: “Since Alabama failed to kill Smith on the first attempt, it has him chosen as his 'guinea pig' to test a never-before-tried execution method. “The world is watching,” Sotomayor warned. The other two progressive justices, Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan, supported this opinion.

Smith's lawyers also objected to the deadlines: “Smith was selected for enforcement even though he had managed to fully exhaust the claims resulting from the failed attempt in a separate proceeding.” [de 2022]”said the document submitted to the Supreme Court.

A life in exchange for a thousand dollars

Smith was convicted of participating in the contract killing of Elizabeth Sennett in 1989 along with another man named John Parker. They stabbed them and beat them to death with a poker in exchange for a payment of $1,000 each promised to them by the victim's husband, an adulterous minister who later called the police and attempted to portray the plot as a violent attack to spend on the family home. When he was cornered, he committed suicide before being charged. Alabama killed Parker with a lethal injection in June 2010. A third person involved in the murder, Billy Gray Williams, who received the order from her husband and recruited the other two, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and died in prison in 2020.

The resort to nitrogen hypoxia is due to the problems caused in recent years by lethal injection, a method introduced in Texas in 1982 and with which 1,377 convicts were killed in those 42 years.

The search for alternatives has recently intensified as pharmaceutical companies, for image reasons, refuse to sell these drugs to states whose stocks have already expired. Additionally, in 2011, the European Union banned the export of these drugs to the United States. This is one of the reasons why only five states carried out the death penalty in 2023. Smith was the third prisoner in a row to be sent to die in Alabama, later returning to his cell due to impotence to find the vein.

In addition to Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi have also approved the use of nitrogen in executions, but neither state has yet implemented it. Smith's death promises to usher in a new era in the history of capital punishment in the United States.

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