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Judicial Murder in Alabama

During the evening of January 25, Kenneth Eugene Smith, having failed to convince the US Supreme Court to delay his execution, became yet another victim of judicial, state-sanctioned murder. A previous, failed effort, using lethal injection, had been made in 2022. On this occasion, it was the state of Alabama which sought to bloody (or gas, in this instance) its copybook at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. The method of execution: nitrogen hypoxia.

Smith was convicted in 1989 for murdering Elizabeth Sennett, the wife of a preacher’s wife, in a murder-for-hire killing. His life, taken in turn, succumbed to a tawdry experiment of penological vice. When state authorities dabble with various methods of death, they can never be anything but cruel. Sometimes, these methods might even be unusual.

Defenders of capital punishment take refuge behind the words of the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, which has often functioned as a form of subversive encouragement to murderous authorities. While the amendment famously states that no cruel or unusual punishments are to be inflicted, the onus is then on officialdom to come up with a form of punishment that is not cruel, nor unusual. And how often has death by firing squad, lethal injection, or swift decapitation been defended on those very grounds?

Nitrogen hypoxia has received much press, much of it ghoulish. In December 2023, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released its final report into the deaths of six poultry plant workers. All had been victims of nitrogen asphyxiation. Investigators found that the Foundation Food Group facility in Gainesville, Georgia was staffed by workers inadequately informed, trained or equipped to deal with deadly leaks. Such concerns were also expressed about staff at the Atmore correctional facility. To date, the US lacks a national standard on the managing, storing, use and handling of such cryogenic asphyxiants as liquid nitrogen.

The degrading nature of the Smith execution was also highlighted by the fact that many US veterinarians would not even stoop to using nitrogen in euthanising animals. In 2020, the American Veterinary Medical Association stated in its euthanasia guidelines that using nitrogen was problematic for mammal species. Such gas would also have to be “supplied in a precisely regulated and purified form without contaminants or adulterants.”

UN experts, including Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and Alice Jill Edwards, Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also warned that nitrogen asphyxiation was “an untested method of execution which may subject [Smith] to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or even torture.”

None of these concerns has dissuaded lawmakers hunting for other methods of killing convicts. Oklahoma (2015) was the first state to permit prison staff to use nitrogen gas. Mississippi (2017) and Alabama (2018), followed. Much of this is being propelled by crude market considerations. The drugs used in lethal injections are becoming harder to obtain, be they because of shortages or restrictions placed on their use in executions by pharmaceutical companies.

With Alabama being the first to apply the measure, a dark interest in the minutiae of killing was taken. The state’s protocol on how the gas would be employed came under withering scrutiny. With nitrogen gas being administered through a mask, intruding oxygen might risk triggering a stroke, creating a permanent vegetative state, or cause excruciating suffocation. Depriving a person of oxygen could also lead to vomiting, thereby choking the victim.

With such complications in the offing, blissful, or wilful ignorance reigned among correction officials and lawmakers. For those involved in a state’s killing machinery, be they robed judges, hungry prosecutors, or the executioners themselves, this remains a standard response. Seedy justifications are offered: just retribution, deterrence, the confusion of novelty with humane policy. Alabama Solicitor General Edmund LaCour was keen to emphasise the latter point with his absurd remark that his state had “adopted the most painless and humane method of execution known to man.”

Alabama officials had submitted in a court filing that they expected Smith to lose consciousness within a matter of seconds and expire in a matter of minutes. “What we saw,” stated Smith’s spiritual adviser, Reverend Jeff Hood, “was minutes of someone struggling for their life.”

In witnessing such executions, those present commune and connive in the same scene. They become vicarious participants, many the unintended apologists for a spectacle featuring murder. On hand were journalists to feed on the macabre display of Smith’s demise. “I’ve been to four previous executions,” the insatiable Alabama journalist Lee Hedgepeth told the BBC’s Newsday program, “and I’ve never seen a condemned inmate thrash in the way that Kenneth Smith reacted to the nitrogen gas.” The session saw Smith gasping “for air repeatedly and the execution took about 25 minutes in total.”

The stern face of officialdom was supplied by John Hamm, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner. For Hamm, all that was aberrant about the scene could be rationalised, reasoned, and explained. Smith understandably held his breath as long as he could. His movements had been involuntary; he showed expected symptoms from inhaling nitrogen gas. He had lost consciousness quickly. “He struggled against the restraints a little bit but it’s an involuntary movement and some agonal breathing. So that was all expected.”

A more candid, vengeful note was struck by the state’s Attorney General, Steve Marshall. “Tonight, Kenneth Smith was put to death for the heinous act he committed over 35 years ago: the murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett, an innocent woman who was by all accounts a godly wife, a loving mother and grandmother, and a beloved pillar of her community.” Smith’s calculated death, crudely experimental and economically determined, was no less heinous, a vulgar rationalisation of cold intent, the exemplar of state cruelty.

 

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7 comments

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  1. Kate

    The murderous DEATH PENALTY in America makes that country one of the worst, most inhumane and hypocritical nations on the planet! Thankfully, Australia – and most other compassionate and civilised nations in the western world – have done away with this primitive, judgemental and very final form of punishment which, in effect, completely annihilates the lives of humans and foregoes any pretence of forgiveness or possible redemption by people who have lost their way and committed a heinous crime.

    Yes, child molestation and murder are the most hideous of crimes but even Christ Himself preached that forgiveness is imperative. The DEATH PENALTY is a government-sponsored act of murder that cannot be reversed or rescinded and, in some cases, innocent people have been put to death which can NEVER be tolerated. Alabama, Lousianna (and other racist States in southern America) have a long, notorious history of racial and religious discrimination against ANYONE who is not White Anglo Saxon or Christian! America often brags about being the “best country in the world” ….. Hmmmmm! Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most of Europe KNOW that this patriotic fabrication is one of the biggest lies ever pushed out by a succession of deluded American regimes. In addition, America’s dangerously lenient and short-sighted lax gun laws have – undoubtedly – been the cause of so much needless homicide and the main reason WHY America has the ignominious “distinction” of having the highest rate of gun-related murder in the western world! What makes it all insufferable is that so many self-righteous Americans try to conceal all that hate, racism and gun-related murder under a superficial, pretentious cloak of nauseating bible-thumping hypocrisy which, thank goodness, is not shared in our secular nation of Australia!

    The fact is that not a day goes by when Australians are not eternally grateful that we live in our beautiful country where strict, sensible gun laws make our streets relatively safe when compared to the obscene gun-related murder and endless gun-toting chaos that exists in gun-obsessed America! History has PROVEN that America’s insane and dangerous lax gun laws achieve NOTHING but the wholesale murder of their children.

  2. Clakka

    Well said, Kate.

    Seems we have little to expect from death cult America. The good folk there appear to be overwhelmed and cowed by them.

    When they blow themselves to smithereens, I hope we are far enough away.

  3. Phil Pryor

    USA rank and file murdering ignorant swine, and that is from the top down, everywhere, The good folk, so many, must be crazed to see it, suffer it, bear the shame, for this was a callous executive murder.

  4. GL

    But…but…it’s a deterrent against other people committing, or even contemplating, murder they cry loudly and stridently.

  5. New England Cocky

    Well, a political sceptic could say that ”at least the American are consistent, Supporting the STATE SPONSORED GENOCIDE OF 25,000+ INDIGENOUS PALESTINIAN MAINLY WOMEN & CHILDREN TO PROMOTE THE PROFITS OF THE US NE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX WHILE DISPOSSESSING & DISPLACING PALESTINIANS FOR THE BENEFIT OF AMERICAN & EUROPEAN ENTREPRENEURS WANTING TO RE-BUILD RESIDENTIAL PREMISES IN GAZA FOR THE FRESH CROP OF ZION@ZI COLONIST SETTLERS ESCAPING RUSSIAN CONSCRIPTION, AMERICAN CHAOS OR EURPOEAN INDIFFERENCE.
    .

  6. Roswell

    Why on earth did they wait 35 years?

    PS: I don’t support the death penalty, btw.

  7. Pingback: Judicial Murder in Alabama - independent news and commentary Australia

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