Judge in Alabama to rule on permitting execution by nitrogen

A magistrate in Alabama will rule on whether or not a novel execution technique utilising pure nitrogen gas may be implemented.

Two additional states are contemplating the technique as a substitute for lethal injections, in light of a series of unsuccessful executions in the United States. However, attorneys for 1988 murder convictionee Kenneth Eugene Smith argued that the technique was unconstitutionally inhumane.

They persuaded the judge on Wednesday to halt his execution on January 25 by employing nitrogen hypoxia.

Smith's attorney, Robert Grass, informed the court that the method of execution "could expose his client to the risk of superadded suffering," which is a violation of the United States Constitution. However, the office of the attorney general of Alabama argued that it was humane.

In order to execute the procedure, Smith would be clothed in a mask that was fitted and sealed around the perimeter of his nostrils and mouth. The mask would subsequently be utilised to substitute respirable air with nitrogen, leading to fatality due to oxygen deprivation.

The Alabama execution protocol stipulates that nitrogen would be administered for a minimum duration of 15 minutes, or "five minutes subsequent to a flatline indication on the electrocardiogram, whichever is lengthier," as reported by the Associated Press.

Wednesday, on behalf of Smith, an assistant professor of anaesthesiology at Harvard Medical School testified that nitrogen hypoxia can cause nausea and increase the risk of choking on regurgitation. Additionally, Dr. Robert Jason Yong stated that the technique carried the potential to induce asphyxia.

The attorney general's office of Alabama deemed Mr. Yong's evaluation to be speculative and requested that he substantiate some of his assertions with examples. In response, Dr. Yong stated that information regarding nitrogen hypoxia in humans was limited.

The case is currently before US District Judge R Austin Huffaker Jr., who has not specified when he intends to render his decision. Other states, nonetheless, will be observing his decision. Oklahoma and Mississippi have contemplated nitrogen hypoxia as a legal alternative.

The method of execution by lethal injection, which is employed in the majority of states that have legalised the death penalty, has faced criticism due to several unsuccessful attempts.

In addition, Alabama's capacity to execute individuals via lethal injection has recently come under increased scrutiny. Four execution attempts have been bungled by the state since 2018, resulting in the survival of some inmates and subjecting them to the distressing prospect of a second execution.

Smith, an individual who received a death sentence in 1996, is among the cellmates. His initial lethal injection execution attempt was unsuccessful in November 2022.

Smith is not the only individual challenging the dangers of nitrogen hypoxia in an Alabama lawsuit.

A minister who preside over executions in Alabama, Reverend Jeffrey Hood, has stated that the use of nitrogen gas endangers his life and precludes him from providing Smith with appropriate spiritual support.

Criticism has been directed at the technique due to the potentially fatal danger it poses to spiritual advisors, witnesses and members of the execution squad should the gas supply hose rupture.

Individually, Mr. Hood initiated a distinct legal proceeding last week. He argued in the document that the execution method "endangers his life and violates the religious liberties of both himself and Mr. Smith, which are both potentially significant risks."