Supreme Court Declines to Stop Nitrogen Execution in Alabama

The U.S. Supreme Court and a federal appeals court each declined on Wednesday to intervene to stop Alabama from conducting the nation’s first-ever execution by nitrogen gas, putting the state on track to use the novel method to kill a death row prisoner.

Alabama plans to use nitrogen gas to kill Kenneth Smith, who was convicted of a 1988 murder, after the state botched its previous attempt to execute him by lethal injection in November 2022. Barring any additional legal interventions, prison officials plan to bring him to the execution chamber in Atmore, Ala., on Thursday evening, place a mask on his face and pump nitrogen into it, depriving him of oxygen until he dies.

The Supreme Court declined to intervene in Mr. Smith’s appeal of a state court case, in which his lawyers had argued that the second execution attempt would violate his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments. The court’s order did not include an explanation or note any dissents.

Hours later, in response to a separate challenge by Mr. Smith’s lawyers, a federal appeals court also declined to halt the execution over the dissent of one of the three judges who had heard the case. Mr. Smith’s lawyers said they would also appeal that case to the Supreme Court, potentially giving the justices another chance to intervene, though they have been reluctant to do so in last-minute death penalty appeals in recent years.

Nitrogen gas has been used in assisted suicide in Europe and elsewhere, and the state’s lawyers contend that the method — known as nitrogen hypoxia — is painless and will quickly cause Mr. Smith to lose consciousness before he dies.

But Mr. Smith and his lawyers have said they fear the state’s newly created protocol is not sufficient to prevent problems that could cause Mr. Smith severe suffering. The lawyers said in court papers that if the mask were a poor fit, it could allow oxygen in and prolong Mr. Smith’s suffering, or if he becomes nauseous, he could be “left to choke on his own vomit.”

The execution is scheduled to take place around 6 p.m. Central time at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility, though it could be carried out any time until 6 a.m. the next morning. Mr. Smith has recently reported feeling increasingly nauseous as his anxiety grows about the looming execution, raising his lawyers’ fears about a mishap during the execution. Alabama prison officials said this week that they do not plan to allow him to have any food after 10 a.m. on Thursday in an effort to lower the likelihood that he vomits.

Abbie VanSickle contributed reporting.

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