The first-ever execution by nitrogen gas is set to go ahead in America tomorrow using a method so cruel and painful the UN calls it torture.
Alabama hitman Kenneth Smith, 58, was sentenced to death for killing a woman on behalf of her preacher husband in 1988 and was due to be executed by lethal injection in November 2022 but survived after it was botched.
Alabama – one of only three states to have legalized nitrogen executions – ruled that Mr Smith would be put to death via nitrogen instead.
Though the state calls the method ‘humane,’ experts say it could cause excessive pain and humiliation, warning he could be left in a vegetative state instead of dying or could choke to death on his own vomit.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has ruled that the execution method is too cruel to be performed on most animals because the suffocation process is too ‘distressing for some species.’
And officials from the United Nations said it could breach human rights treaties that forbid ‘torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
Kenneth Smith is set to be executed with nitrogen gas this week, which the UN has branded ‘torture’ and scientists have largely banned from animal experiments
Mr Smith was convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett on behalf of her preacher husband
The new execution will be performed between 2am Thursday and 6am Friday central time, during which legal teams have the chance to log last minute appeals.
Similar to a lethal injection, Mr Smith will be strip-searched and secured with restraints on his arms and legs before being led into the execution room by guards.
He will then be strapped to a gurney and unable to move any of his limbs. Mr Smith will then have a mask known as a ‘Type-C full facepiece supplied air respirator’ strapped to his face.
This is a type of mask that’s usually used in industrial settings to deliver oxygen. In Mr Smith’s case, he will be forced to breathe pure nitrogen.
The warden will read the death warrant and ask Mr smith if he has any last words. He will then exit the room and activate ‘the nitrogen hypoxia system.’
The state claims it should take a few seconds for the gas to knock Mr Smith unconscious and between five and 15 minutes to kill him.
In theory, the process should be painless.
A report from the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said that breathing ‘an oxygen-deficient atmosphere’ can knock a person unconscious after just one or two breaths and that ‘the exposed person has no warning and cannot sense that the oxygen level is too low.’
The method should prevent the conditions that cause the feeling of suffocating – the build-up of carbon dioxide from not being able to exhale that makes people feel panicky.
Experts say someone breathing pure nitrogen can still exhale carbon dioxide and should not have the sensation of smothering.
If all goes to plan, Mr Smith will black out in seconds as the gas prevents oxygen from reaching his brain. He may even feel a bit euphoric during this process, and his vision will dim.
Starved of vital oxygen, his cells will begin to die and his organs should fail in under 15 minutes.
‘After the nitrogen gas is introduced, it will be administered for 15 minutes or five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer,’ Alabama state procedures read.
State officials said: ‘There is simply not enough evidence to find with any degree of certainty or likelihood that execution by nitrogen hypoxia under the Protocol is substantially likely to cause Smith superadded pain.’
But US and international veterinarians generally do not recommend nitrogen for euthanizing mammals.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals said in its 2013 guidelines: ‘Current evidence indicates this method is unacceptable because animals may experience distressing side effects before loss of consciousness.’
Alabama’s lethal injection chamber at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala., is pictured in this Oct. 7, 2002 file photo
Prosecutors said Smith and John Forrest Parker were each paid $1,000 to kill Elizabeth Sennett for husband Charles Sennett Sr., who was deeply in debt and wanted to collect on insurance
America’s ‘double jeopardy’ rule forbids the justice system trying a defendant twice for the same crime, but there’s nothing in the US constitution to say they can’t try to execute them twice
The American Veterinary Medical Association made a similar conclusion in its 2020 guidance.
Not all experts agree that nitrogen gassing is a painless way to go – some say there it may still trigger the distressing feeling of suffocating.
And Mr Smith’s legal lawyers say that the use of a one-size-fits-all mask means that it’s not airtight.
An inadequate deal could lead to oxygen leaking through the mask, which could experience a prolonged, painful death.
They warned he could also experience a stroke, seizure or be put into a vegetative state instead of dying.
Even brain cells that are starved of oxygen for a few minutes may never recover, leaving the sufferer brain dead but still technically alive.
A doctor testifying on Mr Smith’s behalf also said that a low-oxygen environment could also cause nausea, leaving him to choke to death on his own vomit, which the UN called ‘humiliating’ and ‘degrading.’
This also poses a risk to anyone else in the room, which includes Mr Smith’s spiritual adviser, who plans to stay in the chamber to deliver his client’s last rites.
The adviser, Reverand Jeff Hood, said he was required to sign a waiver acknowledging the risk that he could be exposed to nitrogen.
The document from Alabama Department of Corrections requires him to stay at least three feet away ‘from the mask or any outflow of breathing gases discharging from the system.’
The waiver also noted it was possible, though ‘highly unlikely,’ that the hose supplying gas to Mr Smith’s mask could detach and ‘an area of free-flowing nitrogen gas could result, creating a small area of risk (approximately two (2) feet) from the outflow.’
If Reverand Hood suffers nitrogen toxicity, he could experience difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing.
Dr Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist who was one of the four professionals who filed a complaint to the UN, said: ‘[The workers] could start to hyperventilate because their body would detect that they’re in a low oxygen environment.’
‘And that severe hyperventilation can lead to a stroke.’
‘It’s so telling that they just have no idea, and that they’re going to try to kill him in a way that could kill other people, too.’
‘They’re not being realistic about what exactly is at stake here.’
The protocol also does not specify how the oxygen will be stored to avoid contamination.
Alabama’s plan to go forward with the execution has drawn widespread criticism.
Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the United Nations’ Human Rights Office, said: ‘We have serious concerns that Smith’s execution in these circumstances could breach the prohibition on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as his right to effective remedies.’
‘These are rights that are set out in two international human rights treaties that the US is bound by.’
‘It is worrying that this is gaining ground as a method of execution.’
In a news release, the UN said: ‘We are concerned that nitrogen hypoxia would result in a painful and humiliating death.’
Reverand Hood criticized the team for their previous failed execution.
‘This is the most inept, unqualified, unprofessional execution squad in the country. And they think they’re going to be the ones to do this nitrogen hypoxia without a hitch?’ he said.
‘Presently, Kenny is sickened, deeply pained and horrified at the nitrogen hypoxia experiment that is to come.’
‘Kenny is facing a torture of uncertainty throughout all of this. I think it is as cruel and unusual as any punishment in human history.’
‘I want my guys to always know that what is happening to them is evil. It’s not right.’
Mr Smith was sentenced to death for his role in the 1988 murder Elizabeth Sennett.
According to court records, her husband, a preacher named Charles Sennett Sr, had hired someone who enlisted Mr Smith and one other person to kill Mrs Sennett and make it look like a burglary.
In 1996, a jury recommended Mr Smith be sentenced to life without parole for his role in the murder-for-hire plot. However, a judge overruled the verdict and imposed a death sentence.
In November 2022, the state attempted to kill Mr Smith with a lethal injection.
Normally, a trio of three drugs in a lethal injection works to stop an offender’s heart. The first one is an anesthetic, which renders them unconscious. A second drug then paralyzes them, while a third causes their heart to stop beating.
If all goes as planned, this takes about five minutes.
However, Mr Smith’s execution was botched, and he told Mail Online last year that it caused excruciating pain as executioners tried placing an IV in several different veins.
Mr Smith is only one of two people to survive lethal injection and is the only one still alive.