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Jan 26, 2024, 2:34pm EST
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UN, EU condemn Alabama nitrogen gas execution

Insights from NPR, PBS, Gallup, and ACLU

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The News

The United Nations and European Union led calls condemning Alabama for executing a prisoner using nitrogen gas, the first use of a new method of capital punishment in the U.S. since lethal injections in 1984.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted of murder in 1996, was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m. — roughly half an hour after the execution started at 7:53 p.m., according to the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

Alabama officials had previously said that they expected he would lose consciousness within seconds and die within minutes.

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Alabama has a track record of carrying out botched executions

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Source:  
NPR

In 2022 Alabama saw several botched execution attempts — most of which were halted because executioners failed to set up IV lines or find inmates’ veins. The killing of prisoner Joe Nathan James that year is believed to be one of the “longest executions in U.S. history,” NPR reported after executioners took hours to set up a drip for the prisoner. Kenneth Eugene Smith also faced a failed execution attempt by lethal injection that same year where the administrators failed to insert an IV into his veins. Afterward, he told NPR: “They were just sticking me over and over, going in the same hole like a freaking sewing machine.” While on a tour of the room where Smith would be executed Friday, the inmate’s spiritual adviser Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood noticed that two oxygen monitors were unplugged. Hood said that the warden leading the tour also avoided questions about safety protocols. “What I saw did nothing to minimize my fears,” Hood said to NPR. “It only increased my fears of the incompetence.”

The execution is slammed by domestic and international critics, who call it torture

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PBS, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

Smith’s attorneys said that Alabama was making the inmate a “test subject” for an experimental execution method, arguing that it violated a constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” PBS reported. Just hours before the killing, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Smith’s bid to halt the execution by nitrogen gas — drawing fury from liberal justices, who argued that Alabama was treating Smith like a “guinea pig.” “The world is watching,” said one justice. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk also condemned the execution, saying that “suffocation by nitrogen gas may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Türk also urged all states to place a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, regardless of the method — “as a step towards universal abolition,” he said.

For the first time, most Americans don’t think the death penalty is fairly applied

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Sources:  
Gallup, Associated Press, ACLU

A record-high 50% of Americans believe that the death penalty is unjustly applied, Gallup found in a poll conducted late last year, saying the data shows that support for executions is the lowest in five decades. The results come just three years after Virginia became the first Southern state to abolish capital punishment and two years after California moved to dismantle the country’s largest death row. “The prospect of your ending up on death row has more to do with your wealth and race than it does your guilt and innocence,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who led the move to impose a moratorium on executions in the state, to the Associated Press. People of color in the U.S. account for a disproportionate 43% of total executions since 1976 and comprise 55% of those currently on death row, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

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