Despite criticism and appeals, the American state of Alabama put to death, Thursday January 25, a convict by nitrogen inhalation, a world first denounced in particular by the United Nations (UN) which had compared this method of he execution is a form of “torture”.

Kenneth Eugene Smith, definitively sentenced in 1996 to the death penalty for the murder of a woman in 1988, died at Atmore penitentiary at 8:25 p.m. local time (3:25 a.m. Friday, Paris time), after breathing in Pure nitrogen through a face mask to cause oxygen deprivation.

“Justice has been served. Tonight, Kenneth Smith was put to death for the despicable act he committed thirty-five years ago,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said, asserting that Alabama had “accomplished something historic.”

This execution is the first of the year in the United States, where twenty-four were carried out in 2023, all by lethal injection. This is the first time in more than forty years that a new method of execution has been used in this country. A previous attempt by lethal injection, on November 17, 2022, was canceled at the last minute, the intravenous infusions to administer the lethal solution to Kenneth Eugene Smith not having been able to be placed within the legally allotted time, although he remained attached for several hours.

No sedation planned in the protocol

Alabama, located in the southern United States, is one of three American states authorizing execution by nitrogen inhalation. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said on January 16 that it was “alarmed” by the use of a “new and untested method of execution, hypoxia at nitrogen”. This “could be considered torture or cruel or degrading treatment under international law,” warned a spokesperson for the High Commission, Ravina Shamdasani, calling for a stay of this execution.

Alabama’s nitrogen hypoxia execution protocol does not provide for sedation, while the American Veterinary Association (AVMA) recommends administering a sedative to animals euthanized this way, the spokeswoman noted. .

All appeals and requests for a stay by Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, have been rejected, including on Wednesday, by the United States Supreme Court. The highest court in the country, with a conservative majority, was seized of a final appeal by the convicted person on Thursday, but did not follow up on it. In its written arguments to the Supreme Court, the State of Alabama even went so far as to present nitrogen hypoxia as “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever invented.”

“The Alabama authorities missed three executions in a row in 2022, including that of Mr. Smith,” underlined the executive director of the specialized observatory Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Robin Maher. “Maybe they feel more comfortable moving to a completely different mode of delivery, even if it’s experimental and has never been tested,” she continued in an interview with France Media Agency.

The death penalty abolished in twenty-three American states

“I’m still traumatized by the last time,” Kenneth Eugene Smith confided in an interview with NPR public radio in December 2023, admitting to being “absolutely terrified” of reliving an attempted execution.

He was convicted of the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, 45, ordered by her husband, Charles Sennett, a heavily indebted and unfaithful pastor, to make it appear as a burglary gone wrong. Despite the husband’s suicide, the police traced the two murderers. Kenneth Eugene Smith’s accomplice, John Forrest Parker, was sentenced to death and executed in 2010.

Kenneth Eugene Smith was also sentenced to the death penalty for the first time but the trial was overturned on appeal. During his second trial in 1996, eleven of twelve jurors favored a life sentence. But as with the trial of his accomplice, the judge overrode the opinion of the jurors and sentenced him to the death penalty, a possibility existing at the time in a few states but now abolished throughout the United States.

In its annual report in December, the DPIC specified that most prisoners executed in 2023 in the United States “would probably not be sentenced to death today”, due to the consideration, in particular, of mental health problems and trauma of defendants or legislative changes to impose the death penalty. The death penalty has been abolished in twenty-three American states, while six others observe a moratorium on its application by decision of the governor.