By Lucy Frost-Helms, Copy editor
Being curious about the prospect of time travel, I assume, crosses everyone’s mind at least once in their lifetime. And, while you might think that you need to acquire a tricked out DeLorean or other time travelling contraption, I can tell you right now that you don’t, especially if you’re thinking about traveling to the past.
Just visit the Alabama Department of Corrections.
On Jan. 25, Alabama performed the United States’ first ever execution by way of nitrogen hypoxia. For those unfamiliar, nitrogen hypoxia is, essentially, the process of slowly suffocating under the inhalation of pure nitrogen.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted of murdering Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett in 1988, initially received the death penalty. In 1992, however, an appeal modified his sentence to life without parole. Then, in 1996, Smith again received the death penalty.
So, having sat on death row for 36 years, on and off, Smith finally received what lawmakers initially wanted for him.
If sitting on death row for almost 40 years isn’t wild enough for you—because in the United States, that prospect is not unusually uncommon—this was not the first attempt to execute Smith. In 2022, he survived an attempt at lethal injection, due to an unsuccessful vein placement. The execution was called off and Smith was put back on death row.
Alabama has a history of botched executions, and Smith was not the first to go through it. Out of nine recorded failed executions across the country, Alabama is responsible for four of them—one being Smith’s. Alabama’s solution? Spend funding that could be used for public education or infrastructure on experimental methods of execution.
Now, I could go on and on about my thoughts and feelings toward death row, capital punishment and American prisons in general, but this specific execution sets Alabama and the rest of the country back by decades. And, despite the United Nations’ involvement and a disappointing “go ahead” from the Supreme Court, the execution moved forward.
Preceding Smith’s execution, predictions were made as to what would happen to a person when inhaling pure nitrogen, and with even the most high-up lawmakers stating that it would be safe, effective and painless, the proof of these claims is limited.
In fact, The American Veterinary Medical Association even warns about using this method on animals, as it has not been proven to be a humane method of euthanasia. Before the animal goes unconscious, there are clear signs of distress.
Kay Ivey, governor of Alabama, actually has a dog. Her name is Missy, and as stated on governor.alabama.gov, “Missy is a testament to how new opportunities are possible when people care.” I can’t imagine that this apparently beloved dog, who has her own page on Ivey’s website, would undergo nitrogen hypoxia by preference if she were to be euthanized. So why are we doing this to people?
Our state is very pro-capital punishment, but when we begin to not get it right every single time, new methods are considered instead of abolishing the death penalty and focusing on the rehabilitation of inmates.
So, our new solution is nitrogen hypoxia. An untested, widely experimental and torturous method. Predictions of what would happen during the execution were made by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, but real accounts described by Smith’s spiritual advisor Rev. Jeff Hood, who remained by Smith’s side during the execution, proved to be very different.
In a short wrap-up of the predictions made, it was concluded that once the face mask delivering pure nitrogen was strapped to Smith’s face, it would take seconds for Smith to go unconscious and just a few minutes to actually die. It was also predicted that the process would be painless, humane and essentially unfelt.
None of these things happened. In Hood’s personal account of the execution, Smith held his breath for as long as he could, probably because he was scared out of his mind. It then took over 10 minutes for his breathing to noticeably disappear. During these 10 minutes, onlookers observed Smith shaking and writhing on the gurney while his eyes rolled into the back of his head. He was obviously in pain and the effects of the nitrogen were obviously felt.
Despite the execution going wildly different than predicted, Alabama is now encouraging other states to try this new method, still claiming that the procedure is humane and painless.
I’ve been following this story for a long time, and if you’re not angry, you should be. This new method of execution is nothing but cruel and unusual.
Lucy Frost-Helms is the copy editor of The Alabamian. She’s majoring in social science and minoring in philosophy. She enjoys being a goober, eating chicken salad for breakfast, watching “National Treasure” and telling you that she will “definitely pay you back for that.” Lucy has the worst memory of all time and will forget major, important details of stories you tell her.