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Will Nitrogen Hypoxia Succeed As New Capital Punishment Method?

The state of Alabama tried to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith before and failed, so it is trying a nitrogen method. Smith is scheduled to be the first person in the U.S. – and likely the world – put to death by nitrogen hypoxia on Thursday after a drawn-out legal battle. The Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the execution to proceed. Killing a prisoner with nitrogen is the latest in a fraught string of capital punishment methods, experts say. Some are considered too gory; others became public spectacles – recent attempts often have not worked or inflicted needless suffering, reports USA Today. Experts say the repeated problems often happen because the people and companies who are most qualified to plan a pain-free method of capital punishment won’t do it, due to ethical concerns.

Nitrogen hypoxia is the latest capital punishment method of six that the U.S. has introduced, each more disastrous than the last, said Deborah Denno, a Fordham University law professor and director of the Neuroscience and Law Center. Smith, one of two people to receive the death penalty for the 1988 murder-for-hire plot of a preacher’s wife, chose nitrogen gas for his execution after a previous attempt at killing him by lethal injection failed. In November 2022, Smith suffered for hours as executioners tried to find a vein to administer the lethal drugs before calling it off. “How many execution methods do we need in this country?” Denno said. Experts say concern over Smith’s execution stems from a history of botched attempts, similarities between nitrogen hypoxia’s adoption and previous techniques, and the ethics of trying out a new method for the first time – in essence, experimentation on a human being.


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