Since its inception in 1982, lethal injection has become the preferred method of execution in most jurisdictions in the United States. But as states encounter an ever-growing list of problems with lethal injection, some are turning to alternative means. Alabama is now seeking to execute a death row prisoner by a method that has never been tried before—nitrogen hypoxia, or death by breathing only nitrogen gas.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was initially scheduled for execution by lethal injection in November 2022. After officials attempted—and failed—to set an IV line in Mr. Smith for hours, his execution was called off, marking the third failed lethal injection attempt in Alabama since 2018. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey immediately launched an internal review of the state’s lethal injection procedures, pausing all executions, including Mr. Smith’s, in the interim. Unlike neighboring states like Tennessee that have conducted an independent, third-party investigations into lethal injection procedures, Alabama assigned the review to an internal team in the Department of Corrections. The review concluded in February 2023 with the Department’s self-assessment that it was as “prepared as possible” to carry out executions, and executions resumed.
Mr. Smith was convicted of murder of Elizabeth Sennett and sentenced to death by a jury in 1989. After successfully overturning his conviction on appeal in 1992, Mr. Smith was convicted again in 1996. The jury voted 11-1 to recommend a life sentence, but the trial judge overrode the recommendation and sentenced Mr. Smith to death. Although Alabama abolished the practice of imposing death sentences by judicial override in 2017, the bill contained a provision prohibiting retroactive application to individuals like Mr. Smith, whose death sentences were imposed prior to 2017.