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Firsthand Report of Initial U.S. Nitrogen Gas Execution: Inmate Struggled for Breath and Experienced Tremors

Eyewitness account to first US nitrogen gas execution: Inmate gasped for air and shook

Kenneth Eugene Smith, a convicted murderer aged 58, was executed on Thursday in Alabama using nitrogen gas, marking the state’s pioneering implementation of this new method for capital punishment.

Smith was declared dead at 8:25 p.m., undergoing visible convulsions for approximately four minutes as nitrogen gas flowed through a full-face mask in the death chamber of the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore.

The execution, occurring over three decades after Smith’s conviction for the murder-for-hire plot of Elizabeth Sennett, witnessed the inmate’s struggle for consciousness and gasping for air.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to halt the execution, three liberal justices dissented, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressing concerns about Alabama’s protocol for the new procedure and the potential risks of cruel and unusual punishment.

Firsthand Report of Initial U.S. Nitrogen Gas Execution: Inmate Struggled for Breath and Experienced Tremors

Firsthand Report of Initial U.S. Nitrogen Gas Execution: Inmate Struggled for Breath and Experienced Tremors (Credits: NBC NEWS)

This historic execution, the first to utilize a new method in the United States since the introduction of lethal injection in 1982, unfolded with Smith making final gestures, including signing “I love you” and giving an OK sign moments before the execution commenced.

The entire process, from the moment the drapes opened at 7:53 p.m. to the closure of the witness room curtains at 8:15 p.m., marked a significant shift in the landscape of capital punishment methods.

During the execution, Smith’s reactions were described by the state Department of Corrections Commissioner as “nothing out of the ordinary,” attributing the apparent struggle to expected reactions to nitrogen hypoxia.

The nitrogen flowed for approximately 15 minutes, causing a delay due to difficulties in attaching electrocardiogram monitors.

This event also underscored the contrast with the failed 2022 attempt to execute Smith by lethal injection, during which accessing his veins proved challenging. In the aftermath of the execution, Governor Kay Ivey confirmed the lawfully carried out nitrogen hypoxia method, highlighting Smith’s lengthy legal history and his answer for the crimes committed in the murder-for-hire plot of Elizabeth Sennett in 1989.

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