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Alabama To Execute Inmate Via ‘Entirely Experimental’ Nitrogen

Next week, Alabama prison officials plan to escort Kenneth Eugene Smith from his cell, strap a mask to his face and replace his breathing air with nitrogen gas. It would likely be the first execution of its kind anywhere in the world, the Marshall Project reports. Lethal injection has been the dominant U.S. method for decades. In 2010, pharmaceutical companies began refusing to sell the necessary drugs to prison agencies. States turned to new suppliers and drug cocktails under the cover of new secrecy laws. Ihe disruptions led to more public scrutiny of the method as journalists gave reports of prisoners screaming, choking and being cut and stabbed in the search for veins. Alabama state officials have said the goal of “nitrogen hypoxia” is for the prisoner to quickly lose consciousness as oxygen leaves his or her body. Smith lawyer’s are asking a series of federal courts to stop the execution, arguing that if something goes wrong, he might vomit, asphyxiate or be left in a persistent vegetative state. So far, they’ve been unsuccessful.


The copy of Alabama’s new nitrogen protocol that appears in court records is heavily redacted, but if Smith is executed on Jan. 25 as scheduled, other states could begin using nitrogen in similar ways. Dr. Jeffrey Keller, president of the American College of Correctional Physicians, which trains and represents doctors who work behind bars, said of Alabama's plan, "It’s entirely experimental. There is some concern that leaking nitrogen could affect bystanders, and I don’t know if that’s true, because nobody knows," Keller said. "It’s also proposed to be painless, and I know that is wrong: The proponents refer to people who have become nitrogen-intoxicated during airplane flights, or scuba diving, and then woke up and reported they didn’t feel anything. But the incarcerated person knows exactly what’s going to happen."

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