The entrance to Atmore Prison, Alabama, USA, on January 25, 2024, the day of Kenneth Eugene Smith's execution by nitrogen inhalation. MICAH GREEN / Portal
Despite criticism and appeals, on Thursday January 25, the American state of Alabama executed a condemned man by inhaling nitrogen, a world first denounced in particular by the United Nations (UN), which has linked this method of execution to a form of “ Torture”.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was finally sentenced to the death penalty in 1996 for the 1988 murder of a woman, died in Atmore prison at 8:25 p.m. local time (3:25 a.m. Friday, Paris time) after passing pure nitrogen through a breathing tube had inhaled face mask to cause oxygen deprivation.
“Justice has been served. “Tonight Kenneth Smith was executed for the despicable act he committed 35 years ago,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, asserting that Alabama “accomplished something historic.”
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This execution is the first of the year in the United States, where a total of 24 people were executed by lethal injection in 2023. This is the first time in more than forty years that a new method of execution has been used in this country. A previous attempt at a lethal injection on November 17, 2022 was aborted at the last minute because the intravenous infusions to administer the lethal solution to Kenneth Eugene Smith could not be completed within the time allowed by law, although he remained bound for several hours.
No sedation is included in the protocol
Alabama, located in the southern United States, is one of three US states that allow execution by nitrogen inhalation. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said on January 16 that it was “concerned” by the use of a “new and untested method of execution, nitrogen hypoxia.” This “could be considered torture or cruel or degrading treatment under international law,” warned Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the High Commission, calling for a stay of this execution.
Alabama's nitrogen hypoxia implementation protocol does not require sedation, while the American Veterinary Association (AVMA) recommends that animals euthanized in this manner be given a sedative, the spokesman noted.
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All appeals and motions for a stay by 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith were rejected by the United States Supreme Court, including on Wednesday. The country's highest court, with a conservative majority, heard a final appeal from the convicted person on Thursday but did not act on it. In its written arguments before the Supreme Court, the state of Alabama went so far as to portray nitrogen hypoxia as “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever invented.”
“Alabama authorities missed three consecutive executions in 2022, including Mr. Smith’s,” emphasized Robin Maher, executive director of the specialized observatory Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). “Perhaps they will feel more comfortable switching to a completely different form of delivery, even if it is experimental and has never been tested,” she continued in an interview with France Media Agency.
The death penalty has been abolished in 23 US states
“I'm still traumatized from the last time,” Kenneth Eugene Smith confessed in an interview with NPR public radio in December 2023, admitting that he was “completely afraid” of reliving an execution attempt.
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He was convicted of the 1988 murder of 45-year-old Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, which was ordered by her husband Charles Sennett, a heavily indebted and unfaithful clergyman, to create the appearance of a burglary gone wrong. Despite the man's suicide, the police were able to track down the two murderers. Kenneth Eugene Smith's death row accomplice, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010.
Kenneth Eugene Smith was also sentenced to the death penalty for the first time, but the trial was overturned on appeal. At his second trial in 1996, eleven of the twelve jurors voted for a life sentence. But as he had done at his accomplice's trial, the judge overruled the jury's opinion and sentenced him to the death penalty, a possibility that existed in some states at the time but has since been abolished throughout the United States.
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In its annual report in December, the DPIC noted that most prisoners executed in the United States in 2023 “were unlikely to be sentenced to death today,” particularly due to consideration of defendants' mental health issues and trauma or legislative changes to impose the death penalty Death penalty. The death penalty has been abolished in 23 US states, while in six other states a moratorium on its use is imposed by order of the governor.