Photo: Dave Martin Associated Press The lethal injection chamber in Alabama is shown in this 2002 photo.
Selim Saheb Ettaba – Agence France-Presse in Washington
January 26, 2024
The American state of Alabama executed a convict on Thursday by inhaling nitrogen, a world first that the UN had denounced in advance, calling it a form of “torture”.
Kenneth Eugene Smith, permanently sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of a woman ordered by her husband, died at Atmore Penitentiary at 8:25 p.m., 29 minutes after the execution began, according to a statement from the attorney general from Alabama.
“Justice has been served. “Tonight, Kenneth Smith was put to death for the despicable act he committed 35 years ago,” said Steve Marshall, saying Alabama had “accomplished something historic.”< /p>
According to local CBS, whose execution was witnessed by a reporter, Mr. Smith's last words were: “Tonight, Alabama took a step back humanity […] I go with love, peace and light […] Thank you for supporting me. I love you all.”
Once the execution began, Mr. Smith “began writhing and thrashing for approximately two to four minutes, followed by approximately five minutes of heavy breathing,” local news outlet AL.com reported, based on reports. witnesses.
The convict appears to have “held his breath as long as he could,” Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm told reporters.
This is the first execution of the year in the United States, where 24 have been carried out in 2023, all by lethal injection. This is the first time in over 40 years that a novel method of execution has been used in this country.
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A previous attempt by lethal injection, on November 17, 2022, was canceled at the last minute, the intravenous infusions to administer the lethal solution to Mr. Smith not having been able to be placed within the legally allotted time, although he remained attached for several hours.
Alabama, located in the southeastern United States, is one of three U.S. states that permits execution by nitrogen inhalation, in which death is caused by hypoxia (depletion oxygen).
“I deeply regret the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama despite serious concerns that this unproven method of nitrogen suffocation could constitute torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” the president said Friday. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk. “The death penalty is incompatible with the fundamental right to life […] I call on all States to impose a moratorium on its use, as a step towards its universal abolition.”
The High Commission had called for a stay of this execution, saying on January 16 that it was “alarmed” by the use of this method and emphasizing that the Alabama execution protocol does not provide for sedation, while the American Veterinary Association (AVMA) recommends administering a sedative to animals euthanized in this manner.
The European Union also deplored this “particularly cruel” execution and affirmed its opposition to the death penalty “in all circumstances”.
All appeals and requests for a reprieve from the 58-year-old convict had been rejected. Seized of a final appeal on Thursday, the Supreme Court did not respond.
In its written arguments to the Supreme Court, the State presented nitrogen hypoxia as “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever invented.”
“The authorities in Alabama missed three executions in a row in 2022, including that of Mr. Smith,” explains the executive director of the specialized observatory Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Robin Maher. “They may feel more comfortable switching to a completely different mode of execution, even if it is completely experimental and has never been tested.”
Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted of the 1988 murder of 45-year-old Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, ordered by her husband Charles Sennett, a heavily indebted and unfaithful pastor, to make it appear as a burglary gone wrong.
Despite the husband's suicide, the police traced the two murderers, one of whom, John Forrest Parker, was executed in 2010.
Kenneth Smith was also sentenced to death for the first time but the trial was overturned on appeal.
At his second trial in 1996, 11 of the 12 jurors favored life in prison. But as for his accomplice, the judge, ignoring the opinion of the jurors, sentenced him to the death penalty, a possibility existing at the time in some States but now abolished.
In its annual report in December, the DPIC specified that most prisoners executed in 2023 in the United States “would probably not be sentenced to death today”, due in particular to the consideration of their mental health problems or legislative changes.
The death penalty has been abolished in 23 American states. Six others (Arizona, California, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee) observe a moratorium. According to a recent Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans support capital punishment for murder convictions, the lowest level since 1972.