First Scheduled Execution by Nitrogen Hypoxia Sparks Controversy Even Though It’s Already Being Considered For Euthanasia

Evan Poellinger | November 10, 2023
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Alabama has scheduled the first execution by nitrogen hypoxia, and has ignited a storm of controversy as a result.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed the death warrant scheduling the execution of Kenneth Smith for a period between January 25 and 26, 2024. Smith, who has been on death row for 35 years, was convicted of the murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett. Smith and an accomplice, who were paid $1,000 each by Sennett’s husband to carry out the murder, beat and stabbed Sennett to death, in order for Sennett’s husband to collect on her life insurance policy.

Smith’s execution is noteworthy for being the first that will be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia, a method of execution that has been adopted and considered for adoption by some states, but never actually utilized. Under Alabama’s redacted protocol, Smith will be strapped to a gurney and have a mask affixed over his face. After a final statement, nitrogen hypoxia will be administered for 15 minutes or until five minutes after the EKG records a flatline.

Smith’s prospective method of execution has raised significant backlash from Smith’s attorneys and individuals who oppose the death penalty. Smith’s attorneys declared their opposition to “an untested and only recently released protocol for executing condemned people by the novel method of nitrogen hypoxia.” Maya Foa, a human rights activist, referred to the upcoming execution as “treating a human being like a guinea pig in a laboratory.”

Interestingly, these anti-death penalty advocates are objecting to the use of nitrogen gas, even though it is currently being considered for use as a method of euthanasia. Dr. Philip Nitschke, a euthanasia advocate, announced in August that he was seeking to use the suicide device he invented, a device which uses nitrogen hypoxia as its method of inducing death, sometime this year.

“Dr. Death,” as he has been called, added that he has already received a number of  requests from people volunteering to be the first to use his device.