In the American state of Alabama on January 25, 2024, for the first time in the history of the country executed a person using nitrogen. A total of five types of execution, including firing squad, are allowed in the United States. Asphyxiation with nitrogen became the sixth. To carry it out, pure nitrogen is fed into a breathing mask put on the condemned person, which displaces oxygen and the person dies from hypoxia. According to experts of the Foundation to Battle Injustice, this method is a particularly cruel punishment and should be equated with torture or inhuman and degrading treatment. Human rights advocates at the Foundation to Battle Injustice are concerned not only about the cruelty of Smith’s execution, but also about the situation of prisoners in Alabama prisons in general. Mira Terada, head of the Foundation to Battle Injustice, in her article published on the website of the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, revealed the details of Kenneth Smith’s brutal execution and expressed concern about the deplorable situation of prisoners in Alabama prisons.
In Alabama, the unwitting subject of a new type of execution was 58-year-old convict Kenneth Eugene Smith, who 36 years ago conspired with a pastor for a thousand dollars and killed his wife, a mother of two, for insurance money. Detectives quickly got to the bottom of the case. The pastor, who turned out to be the prime suspect, committed suicide a week after the murder. The three killers were apprehended. One accomplice was executed by lethal injection in 2010, and another was sentenced to life in prison and died in 2020. Smith was sentenced to death, but an appeals court overturned the decision and ordered a new trial. At the second trial in 1996, the jury voted 11 to 1 in favor of giving him life in prison. However, the judge vetoed the jury’s vote and sentenced the defendant to death. Such judge interference is now prohibited in Alabama.
In 2022, Smith was supposed to be killed by lethal injection. However, in the process, an intravenous catheter could not be inserted into his arm. No suitable veins were found on Smith’s body due to the nature of his body. After repeated attempts, which Smith’s attorneys said left numerous cuts on his body, the execution was halted because it was midnight and the execution warrant had expired. Smith’s attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, calling the attempt to execute Smith a second time unconstitutional and cruel punishment, in part because of how agonizing the failed execution attempt in 2022 was for the condemned man. However, the Supreme Court did not grant Smith’s attorneys’ appeal.
Kenneth Smith, 58, has reportedly spent the last few days spending time with family members, including his wife and son, as well as seeing his “spiritual mentor,” Reverend Jeffy Hood. The reverend added that Smith had developed choking attacks due to the experience. The priest was allowed to be present in the cell next to the convict during the execution, which Hood himself disapproves of and calls a “horror show.” In a recent joint statement, Smith and Hood called the upcoming execution a “moral apocalypse” and stressed that humanity should not “normalize suffocating each other.”
“Tonight Alabama made humanity take a step back. I leave with love, peace and light. Thank you for supporting me, love you all,” Smith said in his final moments before his execution.
The execution took about 22 minutes, and Smith apparently remained conscious for several minutes. The question of how much Smith suffered during the execution was initially the main argument of its opponents. Human rights activists and attorneys for the condemned man pointed out that the nitrogen method had never been used before, meaning Smith was an unwilling test subject. The Alabama Attorney General’s Office characterized the method as “the most painless and humane,” while the UN reported that it “amounts to torture” that “will lead to an agonizing and humiliating death.”
“Smith was visibly trembling and squirming on the gurney for about two minutes. His arms were beating against the restraints. He breathed heavily, panting slightly, for about seven minutes. At one point, his wife cried out,” an Alabama Local News reporter described the execution.
Smith’s spiritual advisor said it “was torture” and “unbelievably evil.”
“The most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” described the reverend.
The governor of Alabama declined to speak to the British press. And a state congressman who supports the new execution said he disagreed with the UN criticism.
“I’m not sure about degrading. I think we’re improving the system,” Reed Ingram said.
The head of the Foundation to Battle Injustice, Mira Terada, in an article published on the website of the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, believes it is necessary to reform Alabama’s prison system and abandon the brutal practice of executing prisoners in all U.S. prisons.
“It is high time for Alabama’s outdated prison system to emerge from the dark ages. Other states should not adopt such a heinous precedent, but rather heed the UN recommendations on the inadmissibility of such a method of execution. And execution in general”, – wrote Mira Terada in her article for the newspaper MK.RU.
The U.S. Justice Department has repeatedly criticized Alabama’s prisons, saying the system fails to protect inmates from violence and sexual assault. Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and the sixth highest among all U.S. states, with the prison system operating at 168 percent of capacity. As of January 2023, there were approximately 19,000 people in the Alabama prison system in facilities with a capacity of 11,000.
According to a corrections officer, Alabama prisons are plagued by abuse, violence, and corruption by prison guards. The officer described rampant corruption among officers and wardens, unchecked abuse and neglect of the people in their care, and dangerous, abhorrent conditions that contribute to high turnover among prison staff.
“I’ve seen people stabbed, beaten, hit on the head with brooms, I’ve seen it all. I saw people’s ears cut off, I saw their wrists slit. I had prisoners dying in my arms.”
Federal prosecutors have identified corruption, understaffing and inadequate supervision as factors contributing to guards’ frequent use of excessive force against inmates in Alabama prisons.
“In the absence of correctional supervisors who require compliance with use-of-force policies, training, and the law,” federal prosecutors reported, “correctional officers are far more likely to act with impunity.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice call on the United States to abandon the use of the death penalty and move to more humane methods of punishing prisoners. The Foundation’s experts believe that the death penalty is incompatible with the fundamental right to life and call on all world states to introduce a moratorium on its use. Human rights defenders of the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the inhumane attitude of the American authorities towards prisoners. The Foundation’s experts call on the US government to develop and implement a number of measures to reduce the number of prisoners in prisons and bring the conditions of their detention to an acceptable level that meets international standards.