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Alabama State in US becomes first to use nitrogen gas execution

01:13 AM Jan 27, 2024 IST | SURINDER SINGH OBEROI
alabama state in us becomes first to use nitrogen gas execution
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New Delhi, Jan 26: Alabama State in the United States has become the first State of the country to execute convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith using nitrogen gas, marking a global first in the realm of capital punishment.

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The 25-minute execution of the 58-year-old unfolded after the Supreme Court declined a last-minute reprieve for Smith, who faced the first US execution by nitrogen inhalation.

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Despite legal challenges and calls for intervention on grounds of the "cruel and unusual" nature of nitrogen gas execution, the US Supreme Court, along with a federal appeals court, stood firm, allowing the unprecedented method to proceed.

Critics argue that the use of nitrogen gas can lead to unnecessary suffering, with concerns raised about potential leaks posing risks to those present in the execution chamber.

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The international community has responded with condemnation to the execution by nitrogen inhalation. The United Nations human rights chief voiced apprehension over the perceived cruelty and torture associated with this novel method. In response to the UN's criticism, Alabama officials defended the execution, asserting its humane conduct.

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Media reports giving witness accounts of Smith's execution depict a unique and unsettling scene, with the condemned reportedly smiling and expressing love towards his family as the nitrogen gas enveloped him.

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Volker Turk, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed regret over the execution, citing concerns about the untested and novel method's potential to constitute torture.

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Nitrogen hypoxia, while approved by some states, faces criticism for being untested and unproven, prompting a re-examination of its ethical implications in the context of capital punishment.

Alabama's decision to employ nitrogen gas as a method of execution for Kenneth Eugene Smith has stirred both curiosity and controversy, marking an unprecedented step in the state's pursuit of an alternative to lethal injection.

Originally scheduled for a lethal drug execution in November 2022, Smith's case took a dramatic turn when prison staff faced challenges in inserting the necessary intravenous lines. After an hour of struggling with the second IV, the execution was abandoned, leading to Smith eventually facing the novel nitrogen gas method.

The controversy surrounding Alabama's shift to nitrogen gas execution lies not only in its unprecedented nature but also in its reflection of broader challenges within the realm of capital punishment.

As the death penalty faces diminishing popularity nationwide, states grapple with issues related to lethal injection, the predominant method for decades. This move by Alabama reflects an ongoing quest for a more reliable and accessible means to execute convicts.

Lethal injection, while widely adopted in recent decades, is not without its complications. The Death Penalty Information Centre notes that no execution method has been found to violate the constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishments," although some state courts have outlawed specific methods.

With difficulties arising in the administration of lethal injection, states like Alabama have encountered hurdles in executing death row inmates.

Moreover, the scarcity of lethal injection drugs has compounded the challenges faced by states pursuing capital punishment. Restrictions on drug sales imposed by manufacturers, coupled with international bans on exports of the chemicals, have created a shortage, prompting states to explore alternative methods. Notably, the last open-market source, Pfizer, ceased selling drugs for use in executions, forcing states to seek alternative suppliers.

Eight states, in the United States including Alabama, still permit the use of the electric chair in executions, highlighting the diverse approaches to capital punishment. The recent shift to nitrogen gas represents a novel attempt to overcome the logistical and ethical challenges associated with existing methods.

As states navigate these complexities, the controversy surrounding nitrogen gas execution in Alabama underscores the ongoing evolution and debates surrounding capital punishment in the United States. The search for a more practical and acceptable means of execution persists, reflecting a broader reassessment of the nation's approach to administering the death penalty. The global landscape surrounding capital punishment has witnessed significant changes, with 112 countries abstaining from the death penalty, a stark increase from the 48 countries in 1991.

In 2022, six nations opted for either complete or partial abolition of the death penalty. Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic joined the ranks of countries that completely eradicated the practice. Among the distinctive execution methods employed in 2022, Saudi Arabia stood alone in publicly listing beheading as its preferred method. Other countries utilized methods such as hanging, lethal injection, and death by shooting in carrying out capital punishment.

The diverse range of methods reflects the global disparities in approaches to executions and underscores the ongoing international discourse surrounding the ethical considerations of the death penalty where the voice for completely abolishing capital punishment keeps on increasing its campaign and efforts.

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