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Despite controversy, Alabama is set to execute a person using nitrogen hypoxia


Tonight Alabama is set to execute someone using an untested method. It would be the first state to kill an inmate using what Alabama calls nitrogen hypoxia. Opponents say the method is experimental and cruel. Kenneth Smith was convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the murder-for-hire plot to kill Elizabeth Sennett. The victim was beaten and stabbed to death in 1988. Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott has been covering the case and joins us from Montgomery. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: Where do things stand now with this execution?

GASSIOTT: Well, the execution was scheduled for 6 p.m. local time, but that's more like a guideline, and, Ari, it's likely to drag into the night, as there are still appeals happening right now to try to stop this execution. We know from our NPR producers on the ground that some protesters have arrived at the prison in Atmore, which is just north of Mobile, and that's where Alabama carries out its executions. Ari, there's also incredible international interest in this story. We know that the family of Kenneth Smith has been fielding calls from all around the world. And the U.N. has spoken out against this method of execution. So there's a lot of attention on this.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk more about that method. This is relatively new. The state calls it nitrogen hypoxia. What is it?

GASSIOTT: Well, Ari, this is the first time in the United States that an inmate - and Smith, in this case - will have a mask strapped to his face and be administered pure nitrogen gas. Now, state officials say that 30 to 45 seconds later, he will become unconscious. And soon after, they say, he will die from oxygen starvation. And in court records, the state of Alabama maintains it will be a quick and painless death.

SHAPIRO: But many people are concerned that it will be the opposite of quick and painless. What have people in Alabama been telling you?

GASSIOTT: Well, you know, I was at a rally earlier this week on the steps of the Alabama Capitol, and a number of groups had gathered to protest this execution, which they're calling untested and experimental. They were ringing a bell, Ari, that was previously a gas canister, and they were praying. And while I was there, I spoke with Unitarian Universalist Reverend Lynn Hopkins, who echoed much of what I heard coming from those who spoke.

LYNN HOPKINS: Alabama has a lot of tragic, brutal moments in its history, but this one is exceptional in that the government is actively pursuing death above all reasonable objections in a method that obviously has not been tested. It is a lethal act.

SHAPIRO: And, Kyle, this is the second time Alabama is attempting to put Kenneth Smith to death. And wasn't it he who asked for this method of execution?

GASSIOTT: He did, Ari. In 2022, Smith's execution was the last of three botched or problematic lethal injections Alabama attempted to carry out. So in trying not to get executed again by lethal injection, Smith actually suggested nitrogen hypoxia, which had been approved by the legislature, and that's the term that they gave it. But at the time, there were no protocols. Late last year, the state issued a 41-page protocol. And so Smith's execution was set for today. But now, Ari, his lawyers argue that in trying to execute him again using this method, it's a violation of the constitutional amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.

SHAPIRO: Well, with so many people around the country and the world watching this execution, what are the concerns about how it could unfold tonight?

GASSIOTT: Well, so critics of this method say that there are a number of things that could go wrong, such as Smith vomiting into his mask or it slipping off when he attempts to pray out loud. They're also worried about other individuals near Smith, such as his spiritual adviser. If it doesn't work like they predict and it doesn't kill him, it may leave him in a vegetative state. And other states with the death penalty, Ari, are watching closely, as they're all looking for alternatives to current death penalty methods.

SHAPIRO: That is Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott. Thank you.

GASSIOTT: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kyle Gassiott