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The Gator

The student news site of Brimmer and May School | Chestnut Hill, MA

The Gator

The student news site of Brimmer and May School | Chestnut Hill, MA

The Gator

Balancing Justice and Humanity: Rethinking Nitrogen Executions

James Yu
Illustration created with Canva.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, condemned for the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett, was executed in Alabama on Thursday, January 25, attracting attention as potentially the first person in America to be executed by nitrogen gas—a method that has sparked significant debate.

Theoretical discussions suggest that execution by nitrogen gas is a swift and painless method. Nitrogen, an inert gas that is both colorless and odorless, can cause hypoxic asphyxiation when inhaled in its pure form, devoid of oxygen. Under such conditions, a person would lose consciousness within 17 to 20 seconds, leading to death due to lack of oxygen.


Considering that nitrogen inhalation does not induce immediate pain and the process of dying might not provoke violent resistance from the prisoner, experts argue that nitrogen execution could serve as an efficient method of capital punishment.

However, this execution method depends on the prisoner’s cooperation. If the prisoner resists by holding their breath or has a naturally slow respiratory rate, the process could be prolonged, and complications could arise during the execution.

“Some of it [nitrogen] will be exhaled [by Smith] along with carbon dioxide and some of it may leak out of the mask,” Dr. Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anaesthesiology at Emory University, told the BBC, highlighting a significant risk to the execution.

Unfortunately, Dr. Zivot’s cautionary advice was borne out during Kenneth Smith’s execution. Nitrogen gas was administered for 15 minutes, with Smith’s death seemingly occurring 10-15 minutes post-injection, significantly longer than theoretical expectations. Witnesses reported that Smith appeared conscious, even rolling on the gurney, minutes into the procedure. Official death pronouncement came 25 minutes after the execution started, underscoring the discrepancy between theoretical assumptions and practical outcomes.

The apparently distressing nature of the death led to numerous questions. In response, Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Q. Hamm spoke to CNN, saying, “There was some involuntary movement and some agonal breathing, but that was all anticipated and falls within the side effects we’ve encountered and researched on nitrogen hypoxia.”

For Elizabeth’s family, justice was realized through Smith’s execution, not the anguish endured.

While expressing support and affirmation of the manner in which the execution was carried out, Hamm did not deny the pain that Kenneth may have suffered. He claimed that Smith appeared to be trying to hold his breath and break free of his bonds. For someone on the verge of death, this seems unsurprising. But if such a natural reaction must lead to torture and pain, we have to reflect on whether this type of execution is truly humane.

Volker Türk, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has publicly criticized the use of nitrogen for execution. He highlighted that nitrogen asphyxiation, being an unprecedented and unproven execution method, could constitute torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, expressing profound regret over its application.

“I deeply regret the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama despite serious concerns this novel and untested method of suffocation by nitrogen gas may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Turk said during a Jan. 6 press conference.

In contrast, Republican state lawmaker Reed Ingram did not agree with the UN’s comments.

“I don’t know about degrading, I don’t know about inhumane, I think we’re improving. I think the process may be better than what he did to the victim,” Ingram said to the BBC.

In response to the dissenting voices, Sennett’s sons reminded everyone that Smith should pay for his crimes—no matter what.

“What’s going on is overshadowing what ‘s actually happened,” Chuck Sennett told CNN. “He’s gotta pay the price for what he did to our mother He’s gotta pay the price for what he did to our mother.”

The death penalty is deemed necessary by some for the gravest offenses, embodying a form of justice deeply felt by many. However, if the method inflicts torture—physically or mentally—recognized universally as inhumane, it contradicts the penalty’s very rationale.

For Elizabeth’s family, justice was realized through Smith’s execution—not the anguish endured. Given alternatives exist, the distress caused by nitrogen execution prompts a reconsideration of its use in modern justice, urging a cautious stance.


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About the Contributor
James Yu
James Yu, Senior Journalist
James came to Brimmer in 2022 and joined The Gator in 2023. He has a great interest in current international affairs, politics, and economics. In his free time, he is passionate about translation, debate, video game theory, and role-playing.

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  • J IulianoFeb 23, 2024 at 8:53 am

    A well-written, cogent argument here, James. Capital Punishment has been eliminated in 112 countries to date, but 55 still use it, including the US. It’s a complicated issue certainly and you have captured a sense of it here that certainly bears more consideration. Thank you for presenting this for our consideration.