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Kenneth Eugene Smith Alamy Stock Photo
Death Row

UN urges Alabama to halt first US execution using nitrogen gas, says it could 'amount to torture'

Kenneth Eugene Smith has been on death row for more than three decades after being convicted in 1989 of a murder-for-hire.

A CONVICTED MURDERER is scheduled to be executed in the southern US state of Alabama this week using nitrogen gas, a novel method that the United Nations has said could “amount to torture”

Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, has been on death row for more than three decades after being convicted in 1989 of a murder-for-hire.

Smith is to be put to death at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama, during a 30-hour window beginning at 1am (6am Irish time) tomorrow.

He is to be executed by nitrogen hypoxia, a method which has not been used before in the United States.

There were 24 executions in the United States in 2023, all of them carried out using lethal injection.

Smith was subjected to a failed execution attempt in 2022, when prison officials were unable to set intravenous lines to administer a lethal injection.

The last US execution using gas was carried out in 1999 when a convicted murderer was put to death using hydrogen cyanide gas.

Alabama is one of three US states that have approved the use of nitrogen hypoxia as a method of execution. It involves administering nitrogen gas through a facemask, depriving the body of oxygen.

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN rights office in Geneva, said Alabama makes no provision for sedation prior to execution by nitrogen asphyxiation. 

“The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends giving even large animals a sedative when being euthanised in this manner,” she said.

While nitrogen gas has never been used to execute humans in the United States, it is sometimes used to kill animals.

Shamdasani has urged Alabama to abandon plans to execute Smith using this method. 

She said it could “amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, under international human rights law”.

“The UN human rights office calls on Alabama state authorities to halt Smith’s execution, scheduled for 25-26 January, and to refrain from taking steps towards any other executions in this manner,” she said, speaking in Geneva.

Beyond the execution method, Shamdasani reiterated the UN’s opposition to the death penalty in principle.

She said the death penalty is inconsistent with the fundamental right to life. 

“There is an absence of proof that it deters crime, and it creates an unacceptable risk of executing innocent people,” she said.

Supreme Court appeal

Smith was convicted of the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett, a pastor’s wife.

Her husband, Charles Sennett, who had arranged the murder, died by suicide a week after her death.

Smith has appealed to the US Supreme Court for a stay of execution. However, the nation’s highest court has rarely granted such requests in recent years.

The state of Alabama, in a filing urging the court to reject the stay, defended the method of execution, claiming that it was “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised”.

“Rather than inventing new ways to implement capital punishment, we urge all States to put in place a moratorium on its use, as a step towards universal abolition,” Shamdasani said.

Capital punishment has been abolished in 23 US states, while the governors of six others – Arizona, California, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee – have put a hold on its use.

Additional reporting by © AFP 2024

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