Sentenced to death in Alabama with nitrogen: he died in atrocious contortions: “Humanity takes a step backwards”

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By John

«Tonight Alabama made humanity take a step back. I leave with love, peace and light. Thanks for supporting me. I love you all”. These are the last words of Kenneth Smith, the first condemned man in the world executed with a method never used before and compared by the UN to a possible torture: nitrogen, breathed through a mask until suffocation.

A method also envisaged by two other American states (Mississippi and Oklahoma) as an alternative to the increasingly difficult lethal injection, which Smith survived a year ago after doctors had pierced his hands and arms for over an hour without being able to find the right vein. The execution, the first of the year in the USA after midnight in 2023, has raised indignation and condemnation in the international community, from the Glass Palace to the EU and human rights associations.

“I deeply regret the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama despite serious concerns that this new and untested method of suffocation by nitrogen gas may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said the High United Nations commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk, urging “all states to implement a moratorium on its use, as a step towards universal abolition”.

The European Union also expressed “deep regret”, recalling that “according to leading experts, this method is a particularly cruel and unusual punishment”, and reiterating that it “firmly opposes the death penalty at all times”.

Silence so far from the White House, despite Joe Biden having committed to the abolition of capital punishment. Last minute appeals to stop the execution were useless: the supreme court rejected them all, even if three liberal judges (Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson) voted against: «Having failed to kill Smith on the first attempt, Alabama selected him as a guinea pig to test a never-before-tested method of execution.

The world is watching”, wrote one of them, motivating the dissent. Smith was executed Thursday night after spending 34 years on death row in a prison in Alabama, a southern state marked by racism but also by the birth of the African-American civil rights movement. In the previous hours he was visited by his family, two friends, his spiritual advisor and his lawyer. His last dinner was steak and eggs with french fries.

Then they tied him to a stretcher and took him to the death chamber, making him wear the dreaded mask. After the nitrogen delivery began, Smith smiled, turned to his loved ones and nodded to say he loved them. Then “he began to writhe and squirm violently on the stretcher for about two to four minutes, followed by about five minutes of noisy breathing,” said one of the five reporters who witnessed the execution, which lasted a total of 25 minutes. “I had already seen four executions but I have never seen a condemned man squirm like Smith,” he confessed.

“After more than 30 years and several attempts to game the system, Smith has answered for his horrendous crimes,” Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey coldly commented. “Justice has been served”, echoed her attorney general Steve Marshall, assuring that nitrogen has proven to be “an effective and humane method of execution”.

State Corrections Commissioner John Hamm assured that everything went as planned and that the condemned man’s movements on the gurney appeared to be involuntary. The experts have an opposite opinion. Smith had been sentenced to life in prison by a jury for killing Elizabeth Sennett in 1988 on commission from her husband, an indebted pastor who wanted to collect the insurance premium and who committed suicide once he was discovered. But the judge canceled the verdict and imposed the death penalty. His accomplice John Forrest Parker had already been executed in 2010.