UN experts voice concern over scheduled US execution by nitrogen gas

Four UN experts urged US officials on Wednesday to cancel the execution of an inmate in Alabama by nitrogen hypoxia. Kenneth Smith, who was sentenced to life without parole in 1988 after being convicted for murder, is scheduled to be executed on January 25, 2o24.

The UN experts asserted that Smith’s execution will mark “the first attempt at nitrogen hypoxia execution.” They expressed concerns regarding the effects of nitrogen gas asphyxiation, specifically that the method “would result in a painful and humiliating death.” Ultimately, the experts urged US and Alabama officials not to go through with the execution. They stated that by carrying out Smith’s execution by nitrogen hypoxia, the US will likely violate the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which it is a party. The experts also stated that because execution by nitrogen hypoxia has never been used before, the US will violate the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment by conducting it on Smith.

The day before the first scheduled execution of Smith, the US Supreme Court denied Smith’s petition for a stay. According to an amended complaint filed by Smith, he spent four hours restrained on an execution table on November 17, 2022 despite the fact that legal decisions were concurrently made regarding his execution, all unbeknownst to Smith.

Specifically, moments after guards obtained Smith from his cell to transport him to an execution chamber, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion finding that Smith provided enough facts to support a possible finding that the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) would violate his Eighth Amendment rights by performing execution by lethal injection. The Eight Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court cited the risk that executioners would be unable to find a vein suitable to administer the lethal injection due to heightened anxiety in those who are expecting death. Later that night, the US Supreme Court vacated the Eleventh Circuit’s stay.

Though Smith’s first execution attempt was eventually called off, he alleges that executioners “repeatedly jabb[ed]” his “arms and hands with needles, left him “tilted in an inverse crucifixion position…for several minutes,” and injected him “with an unknown substance.”

Gina Maiola, a spokesperson for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, stated that nitrogen hypoxia is the execution method requested by Smith, as reported by the Death Penalty Information Center. In May 2023, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama officials regarding Smith’s request for execution by nitrogen hypoxia, allowing a lower court finding that the alternative method should be allowed to stand. In August 2023, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall moved for execution of Smith to be rescheduled by means of nitrogen hypoxia.

In light of Smith’s upcoming execution, commentators have highlighted the ethical implications surrounding nitrogen hypoxia as a means of execution and called on the Jewish community to advance resistance against gassing as an execution method.