Why is nitrogen gas being used during US executions rather of a fatal injection?

On Thursday, convicted murderer Kenneth Smith became the first person in the United States to be executed by nitrogen gas, a contentious new technique that some experts have warned might result in excruciating pain or even torture.

Because of his part in the 1988 murder-for-hire scheme that resulted in Elizabeth Sennett’s death, Smith was placed on death row. In 2022, he narrowly avoided death by lethal injection when prison workers neglected to place two intravenous lines into his veins as required by the procedure, resulting in the halting of his execution. After an hour of trying, they were only able to insert one line.

Smith now faced a new destiny: being killed by nitrogen gas. For a maximum of fifteen minutes, he was restrained by a mask that released pure nitrogen gas. That caused his brain’s oxygen supply to be cut off, which caused him to go unconscious and die.

In reaction to the problems with lethal injection, the most popular method of execution in the US, several jurisdictions have developed alternatives like this one.

The death penalty is still in place in around half of the US states; it is applied in various ways, including hanging, firing squad, and electric chair. Though certain state courts have outlawed some of these techniques, the US Supreme Court has not declared any of them to be illegal.

Why not provide a fatal injection?
Since Texas began using lethal injection in 1982, it has been the favored technique. Lethal injection entails injecting medicines that sedate and kill the convict. In the United States, 24 persons were executed by lethal injection last year, mostly in Florida and Texas.

However, there have been several ethical and practical issues with fatal injection. The prisoners have endured agony as a result of many botched executions. Some prisoners, like Smith, have had their executions postponed or canceled due to their inability to get appropriate veins. However, several jurisdictions have had difficulty obtaining the medications required for fatal injection because pharmaceutical companies have either ceased making them or refused to sell them.

2011 saw a restriction on the export of lethal injection medications by the UK and the EU, and in 2016, Pfizer—the last major supplier of these pharmaceuticals—ceased to supply them for use in capital punishment. Consequently, several jurisdictions have turned to employing illicit or unapproved medications obtained from private vendors, such as compounding pharmacies.

Why was nitrogen gas used by Alabama?
Some states have also looked at nitrogen gas as a potential solution. Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Alabama have all endorsed the use of nitrogen gas in executions and have supported the practice in court. They contend that since nitrogen gas causes pleasure and unconsciousness before to death, it is a kind and painless method of ending life. They provide instances of workplace mishaps in which employees perished from nitrogen hypoxia without understanding it.

However, opponents of nitrogen gas claim that it is an untested, experimental technique that could hurt and suffer the prisoners.

It’s an experimental practice, according to Dr. Jeff Keller, President of the American College of Correctional Physicians. Numerous things may go wrong.

The process is meant to be painless, according to Deborah Denno, a criminologist at Fordham Law School who analyzes the use of the death sentence. However, I must emphasize that’s only a notion. She draws attention to the possibility of improper fit and air leakage in nitrogen gas masks. She cautions that Smith could throw up or suffer brain damage if he survives the execution.