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Alabama carrying out first nitrogen execution in US

Alabama began carrying out the first execution of a condemned prisoner using asphyxiation by nitrogen gas, a new method the state hopes to advance as a simpler alternative to lethal injections.

Kenneth Smith, convicted of a 1988 murder-for-hire, is a rare prisoner who has already survived one execution attempt. In November 2022, Alabama officials aborted his execution by lethal injection after struggling for hours to insert an intravenous line’s needle in his body.

Under the new protocol, which was announced in a heavily redacted form in September, officials will restrain Smith in a gurney and strap a commercial industrial-safety respirator mask to his face. A canister of pure nitrogen will be attached to the mask in a process intended to deprive him of inhaling oxygen.

The execution had been scheduled to begin at 6pm (12am Irish time) in the death chamber at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, but it was delayed as the US Supreme Court weighed his final appeal to halt the execution. Shortly before 8 pm (2am Irish time) court denied his appeal, allowing the execution to proceed.

Alabama has called it the “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man” and says he should lose consciousness within a minute or two, and die soon after.

Though poisonous gasses such as hydrogen cyanide have been used in executions in past decades, this would be the first time a death sentence has been carried out anywhere using an inert gas to suffocate someone, capital punishment experts say.

Opponents of capital punishment, including United Nations human-rights experts, have said the method amounts to experimenting on humans and could merely injure him without killing him, or lead to a torturous death.

“It’s a sad, awful day for everyone, no matter what your perspective is” Rev. Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual adviser, said in an interview before heading into the prison.

“But I think that this is particularly horrific in that we’re going to be conducting a human experiment for the first time. We’re going to be legally suffocating someone.”

Mr Hood will be at Smith’s side during the execution, and was required by the Department of Corrections to sign a waiver acknowledging the “unlikely” danger of himself succumbing to the effects of asphyxiation by nitrogen, which is an invisible, tasteless and odorless gas. Hood said he planned to honor Smith’s request to anoint his head with oil as they prayed.

Yesterday, Smith had asked the US Supreme Court to halt the execution so that justices can consider an appeal, challenging a decision by the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals. The high court’s conservative majority has generally voted in recent years against delaying scheduled executions.

In a split decision, a panel of 11th Circuit judges denied Smith’s request to halt the execution to allow his legal challenges to the new protocol to proceed.

Smith’s lawyers fear that the mask would not properly seal against Smith’s face, allowing oxygen to seep in, delaying or even averting the moment of unconsciousness but risking serious brain injury. They have proposed Alabama instead uses a hood pre-filled with pure nitrogen, to be plunged over his head, or else to use a firing squad.

US states that use capital punishment have found it increasingly difficult to get drugs for lethal injections, partly because pharmaceutical companies forbid supplying them to prisons to comply with a European trade ban on goods to be used in torture or executions.

Lawmakers in Oklahoma and Mississippi have also approved similar nitrogen-asphyxiation execution protocols in recent years, but have yet to put them into practice.

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, according to trial testimony.

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

Some of Ms Sennett’s relatives have said they support the execution and that they planned to attend.

“Why should we have to suffer?” her son Charles Sennett told the WAAY-13 news channel this month.

“And some of these people out there say, ‘Well, he doesn’t need to suffer like that. ‘Well, he didn’t ask Mama how to suffer? They just did it. They Stabbed her multiple times.

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