A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal gave a lengthy defense of Alabama’s plans to carry out the world’s first execution by nitrogen suffocation.
The piece, written by Stuart A. Creque, defends the novel execution method, saying it is a “humane method of execution.”
In August, Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a motion with the Alabama Supreme Court to allow the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith using the new method. Creque first takes issue with the term used by the Alabama law permitting the method, saying the vernacular is not technically correct.
“The 2018 Alabama law approving this method describes it as ‘nitrogen hypoxia,’ but that’s not quite right,” Creque said. “Hypoxia means reduction of oxygen levels in the blood. Breathing pure nitrogen induces anoxia, a total depletion of blood oxygen.”
The method causes death by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen. The process did not have a structured protocol until recently. It involves replacing breathed oxygen with nitrogen, causing the individual to drift to sleep and die. Some, like Creque. have argued that the method would be more humane, while others have likened it to human experimentation.
“News articles often describe nitrogen anoxia as unproven as an effective and painless method of execution,” Creque writes. “In fact, inert-gas anoxia is a well-known cause of death in industrial accidents. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 16 Americans died from 2017-22 in workplace incidents involving nitrogen asphyxiation. In a 2003 safety bulletin, the European Industrial Gas Association warned: “Inhalation of an oxygen depleted atmosphere can cause a person to immediately lose consciousness with no warning, such as dizziness, and die from asphyxiation. Tragically, there have been many examples of fellow workers going to the aid of victims and becoming victims themselves because they were not aware of the cause of the initial incident.”
Creque argues that the process of nitrogen suffocation would be the most purely human method of execution, as was intended with the invention of the electric chair and lethal injection.
“When someone breathes pure nitrogen, he exhales carbon dioxide even though he takes in no oxygen. Since CO2 isn’t building up in his bloodstream, he never realizes that anything is wrong, nor does he experience any discomfort. When his blood oxygen falls, he loses consciousness as his body attempts to limit oxygen consumption by reducing brain activity. Soon thereafter, all body tissues shut down and start to die for lack of oxygen.”
Creque argues that using nitrogen anoxia for executions would avoid another obstacle to lethal injection: drug availability. He points out that, in 2011, the European Union banned the export of drugs intended for use in executions.
“Pfizer, the last federally approved U.S. manufacturer of drugs for lethal injections, announced it would no longer sell its products for this purpose,” Creque continued. “South Carolina had been unable to find a willing supplier of pentobarbital for the past 12 years and thus been unable to carry out its death penalty (only this month it purchased a new supply and plans to resume executions).”
He added, “Pure nitrogen is universally available from many industrial suppliers and can even be produced literally out of the air. Thus nitrogen is immune from restrictions on supply and from political pressures on suppliers.”
Smith was one of two men who were each paid $1,000 to kill Elizabeth Sennett on behalf of her husband, Rev. Charles Sennett, who was in debt and wanted to collect on insurance.
Sennett was found dead on March 18, 1988, in the couple’s home on Coon Dog Cemetery Road in Colbert County. The coroner testified that the victim had been stabbed eight times in the chest and once on each side of the neck. According to court records, Charles Sennett took his own life a week later when the murder investigation started to focus on him as a suspect.
Smith was initially convicted in 1989, and a jury voted 10-2 to recommend a death sentence, which a judge imposed. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 1992. He was retried and convicted again in 1996.
Smith has claimed it was the other man who stabbed Sennett and not him. John Forrest Parker, the other man convicted of the murder, was executed in 2010.
On Nov. 17, 2022, The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) called off the scheduled execution of Smith after officials with the ADOC failed to establish an intravenous line to administer the lethal chemicals in the state's protocol, the second failed execution of 2022. Smith challenged his original execution attempt, saying he intended to select nitrogen hypoxia as his preferred method. A method the state was not ready to carry out at that time.
“Society doesn’t view it as morally acceptable to inflict the same suffering on a murderer that he inflicted on his victim,” Creque concluded. “Nitrogen anoxia will inflict no physical pain; a murderer such as Mr. Smith will merely forfeit the balance of his natural life span.”
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