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Capital Punishment Changes Divide America

Kenneth Smith recently became the first American to be executed using nitrogen hypoxia. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

On Jan. 24, Kenneth Eugene Smith became the first person to be executed using nitrogen hypoxia, a method argued by Alabama state lawyers to be a humane alternative to the quick but inconsistent lethal injection.​​ What was supposed to be a painless death, portrayed by the Ohio Attorney General as “almost like going to sleep,” was described by witnesses as a profoundly disturbing event. According to media observers, Smith began to convulse, writhe, and heave repeatedly for two minutes after the nitrogen began flowing, eventually collapsing and breathing heavily before his eventual death minutes later.

Nitrogen hypoxia poisoning is a system where the air in the mask of the inmate is replaced by pure nitrogen. This was theorized to lead to unconsciousness without struggle in two or three minutes, and death in no longer than seven. However, this was simply a theory of how humans would react to the gas, as it had never been tested before. Nitrogen hypoxia has been used on animals for euthanization in the past, but was outlawed by the American Veterinary Medical Association because of its tendency to cause panic and pain before death. Smith’s lawyers argued that because the gas is painful to mammals, and because Smith was being used as a guinea pig for future executions, using the gas violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state rejected the appeal, claiming that the potential risks were outweighed by the need to carry out the execution. 

Smith was considered a good candidate for the untested nitrogen hypoxia because he had undergone a botched lethal injection in the past. His execution in 2021 was canceled because of issues in finding a stable vein. Lethal injection is the execution method the United States uses with the highest rate of failure; 7.12% of these executions are unsuccessful, and many of the problems stem from inaccessible veins. A common cause of deflated veins is drug abuse, something many inmates have struggled with. The high rate of defective lethal injections has pushed many states to begin looking for new methods, leading them to nitrogen hypoxia. As of Smith’s execution, nitrogen hypoxia is approved in Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The method is also being considered in Ohio. 

Scores of people across the nation are outraged by the adoption of nitrogen hypoxia. Smith’s death raises questions about the humaneness of varying methods of execution, and whether capital punishment in general is immoral. “The death penalty should be the last resort, and if it gets to that, the inmate shouldn’t go through any pain in their final moments because of the emotional damage they have already suffered,” Ellie Luscher ‘27 says, encapsulating the emotions countless Americans have expressed since Smith’s death.

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Stella Gegax
Stella Gegax, Staff Writer

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