Alabama Has Carried Out Its First Nitrogen Gas Execution

“What we saw was minutes of someone struggling for their life.”

Alabama's lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., is pictured in this Oct. 7, 2002 file photo.

Alabama's lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., is pictured in this Oct. 7, 2002 photo. Dave Martin/AP

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After months of legal battles, including a last-minute petition on the day of the execution, Alabama has executed Kenneth Eugene Smith, a man convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire plot, via nitrogen gas—making him the first man in the United States to be killed by that untested and highly controversial method. On Thursday, at 8:25 p.m., Smith, who survived a botched execution more than a year ago, was pronounced dead after being strapped to a gurney and forced to breathe in a lethal amount of nitrogen through a mask.

However, the execution took much longer than state officials predicted. Despite the state attorney general claiming in court documents that Smith would lose consciousness within seconds, witnesses said that the 58-year-old appeared conscious for at least two minutes while the toxic gas flowed, his eyes rolling into the back of his head while he shook violently and gasped for air.

“We didn’t see somebody go unconscious in 30 seconds. What we saw was minutes of someone struggling for their life,” Rev. Jeff Hood, Smith’s spiritual adviser and a witness to the execution, told PBS. There was also reportedly a 45-minute delay prior to the execution that Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm blamed on “a hiccup on the EKG line” that hindered a clear reading. Despite these discrepancies, Alabama officials called Smith’s execution a success.

“As of last night, nitrogen [hypoxia] as a means of execution is no longer an untested method,” said Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall at a press conference following the execution, “it is a proven one.” In the months leading up to Smith’s execution, human rights advocates and medical professionals expressed concerns about the new method, citing Alabama’s sordid history of sloppy executions, including Smith’s previously botched execution attempt in 2022. As I wrote yesterday:

Smith’s previous execution did not go according to plan because prison employees failed to set his IV line, and were unable to kill him before his death warrant expired. This setback, alongside two other botched killings, would eventually cause Alabama to pause executions until July 2023. 

Before his death, Smith’s last words, muffled by the mask, were: “Tonight, Alabama caused humanity to take a step backward. I love all of you. Thank you for supporting me. I love all of you.”

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