Why Recent Execution By Nitrogen Gas In US Has Sparked Controversy

Why Recent Execution By Nitrogen Gas In US Has Sparked Controversy

Alabama is one of the three US states that have approved the use of nitrogen hypoxia.

The US state of Alabama carried out the execution of convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith on Thursday using nitrogen gas. This marks the first time a different method has been employed in the United States since the adoption of lethal injection as the primary execution method. Smith was put to death at Holman Prison, utilising nitrogen hypoxia, causing him to suffocate. The last time the US used gas for an execution was in 1999.

In a nitrogen gas execution, the individual is confined within a sealed chamber. Nitrogen gas is introduced into the chamber, gradually replacing the oxygen. As the person breathes in the nitrogen, oxygen levels decrease, inducing unconsciousness and, ultimately, causing death. 

Kenneth Eugene Smith’s execution lasted around 22 minutes, during which he seemed conscious for several minutes. His reaction included writhing and thrashing for approximately two to four minutes, followed by around five minutes of heavy breathing.

Nitrogen, constituting 78% of the air we breathe, is typically harmless. However, when not mixed with proper levels of oxygen, it can be lethal. Nitrogen gas execution is controversial due to several reasons:

– Critics compare nitrogen hypoxia to human experimentation, raising ethical concerns about its untested nature.

– Concerns were raised about the execution mask not being airtight, potentially allowing oxygen to seep in. This could lead to a prolonged trauma or leave the person in a vegetative state.

– Lack of oxygen may cause the person to vomit inside the mask, posing a risk of choking and complicating the execution.

– There were worries about the well-being of those administering the execution. The odourless and colourless nature of nitrogen gas, coupled with potential mask dislodgement, raises challenges in detecting its effects on individuals in the execution room.

– The limited testing of nitrogen gas as an execution method raises concerns about its reliability and the potential for complications or errors during the process.

Instances of its deadly use often stem from industrial accidents. In 2021, a tragic incident occurred at a chicken factory in Gainesville, Georgia, where six workers lost their lives due to unintentional exposure to a nitrogen leak, reported KC Media

The United Nations has raised concerns about Alabama’s use of nitrogen hypoxia for executions, warning that it might breach international prohibitions against torture and inhumane treatment, reports BBC. They also criticised the absence of a sedative provision before execution, a practice recommended for euthanizing large animals. Compounding the worry is the heavily redacted documentation surrounding the execution, leaving crucial details undisclosed, including safety measures and testing procedures. 

Alabama joins Oklahoma and Mississippi as one of the three US states that have approved the use of nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative method of execution.

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