Alabama Executes Man Using Nitrogen Hypoxia, First Known in Nation

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On Jan. 25, 2024, Alabama carried out the nation’s first known execution using nitrogen hypoxia. Kenneth Smith was convicted and executed for the murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett in 1988.

Nitrogen hypoxia is a relatively new method of execution and only authorized for use by Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. The method entails a prisoner only inhaling nitrogen, which deprives them of oxygen and causes death.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall stated, “What occurred last night was textbook…. As of last night, nitrogen hypoxia as a means of execution is no longer an untested method. It is a proven one. It’s the method that Kenneth Smith ultimately chose, along with 43 other death row inmates in our state. I now suspect many states will follow. Alabama has done it, and now so can you. And we stand ready to assist you in implementing this method in your states.”

The method is controversial, with some calling it cruel and unusual punishment. “In contrast to lethal injection, nitrogen gas execution requires the active participation of the prisoner, like Smith, to continue natural breathing. In lethal injection, once an intravenous line is established, a functioning heart is all that’s required for the distribution of injected chemicals. People lack the practical ability to stop their hearts and delay lethal injection. However, with nitrogen gas execution, the prisoner must inhale the gas voluntarily. While a prisoner may initially attempt to hold their breath to delay exposure, this will inevitably lead to great discomfort and ultimately, the involuntary resumption of breathing. This dynamic could be a common starting point for every nitrogen gas execution,” explain Stephen Cooper, former public defender, and Joel Zivot, practicing physician in anesthesiology and intensive care medicine.

Click to find out what the 2024 candidates have to say about the death penalty.

1. Should nitrogen hypoxia be an accepted method for capital punishment? Why or why not?

2. Other controversial methods of execution, including hanging, are being considered by states. Should states bring back those methods? Why or why not.

3. Should the death penalty be legal? Explain your answer. 

Stephen Cooper and Joel Zivot, “Alabama’s Nitrogen Gas Execution Will Be Cruel and Unusual Punishment,”, Jan. 11, 2024

Elizabeth Wolfe, et al., “Alabama Carries Out First Known Execution with Nitrogen Gas in the US. Now the State’s AG Expects More States to Follow,”, Jan. 26, 2024