Alabama death row: What is the new ‘nitrogen gas execution’ method?

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The US state of Alabama is expected to carry out the first-ever official execution by nitrogen gas on Thursday after the US Supreme Court declined to halt the execution of prison inmate Kenneth Smith.

Smith will be put to death during a 30-hour window starting from Thursday for his part in a 1998 murder for hire, 14 months after a botched lethal injection in November 2022.

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The new method, using nitrogen hypoxia, has sparked controversy that it could lead to excessive pain or torture.

Here’s everything we know about the novel execution method:

What is nitrogen hypoxia?

Nitrogen hypoxia is a process where nitrogen gas concentrations are high enough to be lethal when inhaled to the point of causing asphyxiation or complete oxygen deprivation.

The method is relatively new compared to more common forms of capital punishment, like lethal injection and electrocution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“Lethal gas” is authorized broadly as an execution method in Alabama, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Wyoming.

However, only Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma specifically authorize execution by nitrogen hypoxia, while only Alabama has issued a public protocol for its use – which has since been redacted.

Nitrogen exists naturally in the atmosphere and is in around 75 percent of the air humans and animals breathe daily. However, the colorless and odorless gas is only safe to inhale when it mixes with enough oxygen.

Veterinarians often refuse to use nitrogen asphyxiation to euthanize animals because of its distressing effects and potential risks to people around them.

Pure nitrogen is used both commercially and industrially in products like fertilizers, nylon, various dyes, as well as explosives.

Because nitrogen displaces oxygen, it is also sometimes used at chemical plants and manufacturing facilities to shield certain equipment from contaminants, such as oxygen.

How will the Alabama execution take place?

Officials in Alabama have said Smith will be strapped to a gurney and made to breathe nitrogen through a gas mask, which could cause him to lose consciousness due to oxygen deprivation before it leads to his death, according to local media reports.

The mask used will be a “NIOSH-approved Type-C full facepiece supplied air respirator” – the same type of mask that industrial workers sometimes use to get life-saving oxygen – the Associated Press reported, citing a court filing related to the execution as saying.

After the nitrogen gas is released, it will be administered for fifteen minutes or five minutes “following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer,” US media quoted a portion of Alabama’s protocol for execution by nitrogen hypoxia states.

Most redacted portions of the protocol are those involving how the gas system is stored, tested and set up, while the remaining sections acknowledge the potential risks associated with having nitrogen tanks in the workplace and note that staff tasked with handling the lethal gas system will receive training.

Unlike protocols for other forms of capital punishment, Alabama has stated that any staff member involved in the execution and deemed non-essential will be asked to leave the death chamber after the mask is fixed on the inmate.

Alabama’s protocol also prohibits a spiritual advisor in the chamber “unless they review and sign the spiritual adviser nitrogen hypoxia acknowledgment form” ahead of time.

Why is the method controversial?

The US Chemical Safety Board issued a series of bulletins in the early 2000s that reviewed cases of nitrogen asphyxiation over the previous decade, with the aim of raising awareness and relaying proper safety protocols to prevent such situations from happening.

One bulletin cites information from the Compressed Gas Association that states that when enough nitrogen is introduced to deplete oxygen in the air to less than 10 percent, the effects on the human body can be lethal and would lead to the “inability to move, loss of consciousness, convulsions” and death.

Even partial oxygen displacement can have serious consequences.

According to several research studies, even the partial introduction to nitrogen gas would cause humans to experience “impaired respiration that may cause permanent heart damage” as well as nausea, vomiting and “very poor judgment and coordination.”

Smith’s legal team has objected to the use of the gas, saying Alabama was using him as a “test subject for a lethal experiment,” US media reported.

Meanwhile, the UN human rights office called on the state to halt the execution, saying “no scientific evidence to prove” that execution by nitrogen inhalation will not cause “grave suffering.”

The spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that execution by nitrogen asphyxiation “could amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international human rights law.”

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