In Alabama, Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, convicted of the murder of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, will be executed with a new methodology, the “death mask”, after surviving an attempted execution by lethal injection in 2022. This technique , approved by some states such as Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi, involves the forced inhalation of pure nitrogen which causes death by asphyxiation within 4-5 minutes. This procedure, never used before on humans, has sparked heated debate and concern at a national and international level, even leading the UN to intervene. The UN has urged a stay of the execution, describing the method as potentially cruel and torturous. Smith’s execution date is January 25, 2024.
What is the “death mask”
The “death mask” is a term used to describe a method of execution that involves the use of pure nitrogen. This technique consists of making the condemned man wear a mask through which pure nitrogen is forcibly administered. Nitrogen itself is non-toxic and makes up a large portion of the air we breathe; however, if inhaled pure, it can be lethal. When a person breathes pure nitrogen, the lungs fill with this gas, excluding oxygen, quickly leading to hypoxia, that is, a severe lack of oxygen at the cellular level, and consequently to death by asphyxiation.
This method has been approved by some US states, including Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi, as an alternative to executions by lethal injection, but has never been used until now. The debate around this technique is heated, with many concerns regarding its humanity and the potential suffering it can cause. Although it is presented as a potentially more humane method than others, there are no precedents attesting to its actual speed and absence of pain, and therefore significant doubts and controversies remain.