Kenneth Smith: UN condemns nitrogen gas execution of Alabama prisoner

UN human rights chief says method 'may amount to torture'

Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted for the murder of a preacher's wife in 1988. AP
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The United Nations on Friday condemned the Alabama execution of a man using nitrogen gas, the first time the method has been used in the world.

Kenneth Smith, who was convicted of a 1988 contract killing, was put to death on Thursday night.

Prison officers strapped a respirator mask on to his face, then pumped nitrogen gas through the face mask, causing him to suffocate.

“I deeply regret the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama despite serious concerns this novel and untested method of suffocation by nitrogen gas may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden's administration was "deeply troubled" by Smith's death by nitrogen gas.

"[President Joe Biden] has long said and have had deep, deep concerns with how the death penalty is implemented and whether it is consistent with our values," she told reporters.

Smith had survived an execution attempt in 2022 when Alabama officials failed to kill him by lethal injection.

Alabama said the nitrogen gas method was the “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man”.

According to the Montgomery Adviser, Smith appeared to convulse and shake for roughly four minutes after the gas flowed into his mask.

“Smith clenched his fists, his legs shook under the tightly tucked-in white sheet that covered him from his neck down.

“He seemed to be gasping for air. The gurney shook several times during this time,” the report said.

Smith appeared to lose consciousness at 8.02pm and took his last breath at 8.07pm. He was declared dead at 8.25pm.

While poisonous gases including hydrogen cyanide have been used in executions in the past, Thursday marked the first time a death sentence was carried out using an inert gas to suffocate someone, capital punishment experts said.

The diplomatic service of the European Union similarly condemned the execution.

“According to leading experts, this method is a particularly cruel and unusual punishment, in addition to the fact that the inmate was already subjected to a failed execution attempt in November 2022,” it said in a statement.

The American Constitution Society, a legal organisation, said the execution “not only flies in the face of the national trend away from the death penalty but reinforces that there are no 'humane' forms” of capital punishment.

US states that have capital punishment have found it increasingly difficult to obtain drugs used in lethal injections, partly because pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply them to prisons to comply with a European trade ban on goods used in torture or executions.

On Thursday morning, Smith asked the US Supreme Court to halt the execution so an appeal could be considered, challenging a decision by the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals. But the Supreme Court said on Thursday evening that it would not stop Alabama from proceeding with the execution.

Smith was convicted of murdering Elizabeth Sennett, a preacher's wife, after he and an accomplice each accepted a $1,000 fee from her husband to kill her, trial evidence showed.

Eleven of 12 jurors voted to sentence Smith to life in prison, but an Alabama judge overruled their recommendation under a law that has since been abolished as unconstitutional.

Updated: January 26, 2024, 7:34 PM