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December 13, 2023

Alabama documents flags risks to others in plans to pioneer execution with nitrogen gas

NPR has this new story on Alabama's plans to become the first state execute an individual using nitrogen gas under the headline "Alabama's upcoming gas execution could harm witnesses and violate religious liberty."  Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece:

The state of Alabama plans to execute a prisoner in January using nitrogen hypoxia, a process so novel and untested that state officials required the man's spiritual adviser to sign a waiver that said he could be exposed to the gas.  The acknowledgment form, exclusively obtained by NPR, also reveals that the spiritual adviser, Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, is required to stay at least three feet away from the prisoner, which may violate both their religious liberties.

If Alabama proceeds with the execution, it will be the first time any U.S. state uses nitrogen gas to put a prisoner to death, but the second time Alabama attempts to execute Kenneth Smith.  Alabama's first attempt in 2022 to execute him failed. Before the execution was ultimately called off last year, Smith spent four hours strapped to a gurney as workers tried to insert needles into his veins to inject him with drugs.  Smith's lawyers requested the state use nitrogen gas instead of lethal injection if they attempted another execution.

Hood had an early warning that this execution might be dangerous. "When I first got in touch with Kenny," he said, "one of the first things that he asked me was, 'are you prepared to die to be my spiritual adviser'?"

The Department of Corrections asked Hood to sign a legal document confirming that the new method could put him at risk. The document declared that it was possible, although "highly unlikely," that the hose supplying gas to 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."  It was also possible that nitrogen gas could displace oxygen in the air above Smith's face and head, according to the document, but there would be gas sensors in the room as a safety precaution.  The Department of Corrections asked Hood to agree to remain at least three feet away "from the mask or any outflow of breathing gases discharging from the system."

Critics say the form demonstrates that Alabama has not adequately prepared for the execution and that nitrogen gas may pose serious threats to workers nearby.  "They could start to hyperventilate because their body would detect that they're in a low oxygen environment," said Dr. Joel Zivot, an anesthesiologist and associate professor at Emory University School of Medicine.  "And that severe hyperventilation can lead to a stroke."...

At the time of publication, the agency did not respond to a request for comment about their assessment of the risk to others in the room. NPR requested all other forms the Department of Corrections may have asked workers to sign, but the agency declined to share the documents. A representative said that disclosure would be "detrimental to public interest."...

This year, Hood has been present at four executions in Texas, Oklahoma, and Alabama. He's never been required to acknowledge a risk to his safety before. "There is no doubt in my mind that Alabama is the most ill-prepared, unprofessional execution squad that exists of those three," Hood said.

Despite his reservations, Hood agreed to be Smith's adviser and signed the form on Nov. 15. "I just cling to a real knowledge that, 'greater love hath no one than this, that one would give their life for their friend,'" said Hood, quoting scripture.

December 13, 2023 at 08:54 AM | Permalink


I wonder if Alabama's proposal to use nitrogen gas is really just a stalking horse to get the inmate to admit that it is not a viable alternative to lethal injection.

Posted by: tmm | Dec 13, 2023 9:46:42 AM

Surely there is not a blanket right to have one's hand held during any form of execution (ar least with a guarantee of safety to the holder). Such practice would not be feasible with firing squad, electrocution, hanging, lethal non-inert gas, or any other form of execution commonly used in this country's history other than lethal injection.

Posted by: Jason | Dec 15, 2023 11:24:01 PM

How odd it is that the killer always discovers Jesus before his execution but never before he beat the victim to death. I tell you, these guys have impeccable timing!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 16, 2023 9:29:43 AM

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