Alabama: Kenneth Smith executed – first execution worldwide using nitrogen hypoxia

After a delay of around two hours – due to a final pending decision by the Supreme Court of the United States – 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith was executed by the US state of Alabama on Thursday evening.

Smith, along with an accomplice who had already been executed in 2010, had been sentenced to death for the 1988 contract killing of a 45-year-old pastor’s wife – whose husband had given the order in order to receive money from her life insurance policy.

Eleven of the twelve jurors at his trial voted in favor of a life sentence, but the judge overruled the decision and imposed the death penalty – a procedure that was banned in Alabama in 2017. Under current law, Smith could not have been sentenced to death.

When the death sentence was carried out, the nitrogen hypoxia method was used for the first time in the USA and worldwide. Smith was injected with pure nitrogen via a face mask so that death was caused by suffocation due to a lack of oxygen.

While supporters praised the method in advance as humane, quick and painless, critics were concerned that Smith could vomit and choke on the vomit.

Eyewitnesses reported afterward that Smith convulsed for at least 10 to 15 minutes, violently throwing himself against the straps and mask securing him to the execution bed and gasping for breath. The entire process took 22 minutes.

Dr. Jeff Hood, his spiritual adviser, and independent journalist Lee Hedgepeth, who had both witnessed several executions by lethal injection, agreed afterwards that they had never seen anything like it before and spoke of cruelty and torture.

It was Smith’s second execution: his sentence had already been carried out by lethal injection in November 2022, but the prison officers failed to establish the necessary intravenous line. After several hours, during which Smith lay strapped to the execution bed, the execution was halted.