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UPDATE: Alabama carries out first-ever nitrogen gas execution decried by faith leaders

Death-row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith poses for an undated booking photo at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama. Convicted for a murder-for-hire committed in 1988, Smith is scheduled to be executed by asphyxiation using pure nitrogen Jan. 25, 2024. The U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 24 rejected his appeal for a stay of execution. (OSV News photoAlabama Department of Corrections handout via Reuters) NO ARCHIVES. MUST DISCARD 30 DAYS AFTER DOWNLOAD.

By Kate Scanlon Peter Jesserer Smith
(OSV News) — The state of Alabama carried out the first known execution by nitrogen gas Jan. 25 after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a final appeal by death-row inmate Kenneth Smith, whose death took 22 minutes according to witnesses.

The Associated Press reported Smith said in his final statement, “Tonight Alabama causes humanity to take a step backwards.” Prior to the procedure, he made the “I love you sign” with his hands toward family members who then witnessed his execution.

Smith unsuccessfully appealed to the federal courts for a stay of execution. He faced the death penalty for his conviction in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of Elizabeth Sennett. The jury that convicted Smith voted for him to face life imprisonment, but a judge imposed the death penalty in 1996 — a now abolished practice called judicial override.

The state sought to execute Smith in November 2022 by lethal injection but botched the attempt after four hours of trying.

Smith’s lawyers had unsuccessfully asked the high court to intervene, arguing the untested nature of execution by nitrogen hypoxia leaves the potential for the state to botch that procedure. They claimed this would violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in Smith’s final appeal Jan. 25, with Sotomayor saying the high court had allowed Alabama to turn Smith into a “guinea pig” as the world watches.

The AP reported that during his Jan. 25 execution, Smith appeared to remain conscious for several minutes, shook and writhed on the gurney for at least two minutes, followed by several minutes of heavy breathing until eventually breathing was no longer perceptible.

The AP reported state officials previously argued Smith would have been unconscious in seconds and dead within minutes — however, when questioned by the AP, state officials insisted the killing of Smith went according to plan.

Smith is now the first person in the U.S. to be put to death by pumping nitrogen gas into the lungs. His death may prompt states that still use capital punishment to consider the method as an alternate way of carrying out executions as the drugs used in lethal injections become more rare.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, backed carrying out the execution and in a statement said Smith “has answered for his horrendous crimes,” which she added, was according to “the method previously requested by Mr. Smith as an alternative to lethal injection.”

“At long last, Mr. Smith got what he asked for, and this case can finally be put to rest,” Ivey said. “I pray that Elizabeth Sennett’s family can receive closure after all these years dealing with that great loss.”

Prior to Smith’s execution, a delegation of more than 100 Alabama faith leaders and community members — including a handful of Catholic priests and religious sisters — delivered a letter to Ivey Jan. 22 urging her to call off the execution.

One of the signatories was the Rev. Cynthia Carter of All Saints Episcopal Church in Homewood, Alabama, who said in a statement, “As a state that proclaims its commitment to life, we must not proceed with this untested and experimental form of execution.”

“Nitrogen hypoxia, which has never been used as an execution method ever before, may pose untold risks to spiritual advisors, prison personnel, witnesses, and others in proximity to the execution,” Carter said. “It is certainly inconsistent with the values of human dignity and respect for life.”

The letter’s signatories did not include the state’s Catholic bishops.

OSV News reached out to Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile and Bishop Steven J. Raica of Birmingham for comment on Alabama’s historic experimental execution of Smith by nitrogen gas.

Through a spokesperson, Archbishop Rodi declined to comment on Smith’s execution, which took place within his archdiocesan boundaries, but referred to teaching statements he made against capital punishment in 2018 and 2016.

A spokesperson for Bishop Raica likewise did not have a comment from the bishop, but referred to the Alabama bishops’ 2016 statement calling for the death penalty to be replaced with “non-lethal means of punishment.”

“The death penalty does not protect; it does not deter. Instead, it prolongs the suffering of loved ones and serves to foster a spirit of vengeance,” the bishops said, adding, “Society does not teach respect for life by taking life.”

In his 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis cited St. John Paul II, whom he said “stated clearly and firmly (in the 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”) that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.”

“There can be no stepping back from this position,” Pope Francis wrote. “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”

The pontiff also revised in 2018 the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on the death penalty (No. 2267) to reflect that position.

Following Smith’s experimental execution, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a group that opposes capital punishment, said in a statement to OSV News that “we mourn the deaths of two people whose lives were unfairly taken from them in an act of violence: Elizabeth Sennett and Kenny Smith.”

But Vaillancourt Murphy said that people from all over the world were watching Alabama and “what they saw was an act of barbarism.”

“How many more executions will it take until we see that returning death for death is not justice — it’s vengeance,” she said. “Tonight’s experimental execution of Kenny Smith by nitrogen hypoxia did nothing to make our communities safer. It proved only one thing: Alabama was hellbent on killing Kenny Smith.”

She said, “Our prayers and actions should be working toward embracing justice solutions that aren’t rooted in revenge. The pursuit of death in the name of justice must end.”

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @kgscanlon. Peter Jesserer Smith is national news and features editor for OSV News. Follow him on X @jesserersmith.

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