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New Execution Method in Alabama Compared to 'Tying Bag Over Their Head'

Sputnik News, Dec. 12, 2023.

The state of Alabama plans to use nitrogen hypoxia as a new method to execute prisoners as the state has had difficulties obtaining the components needed for the drug cocktail mix used in more conventional lethal injection executions.

The never-before-tried method is believed to be painful. Nitrogen has no euphoric effects and the first prisoner scheduled to be executed with it, Kenneth Eugene Smith, will likely die from suffocation if a judge rules the execution can move forward.

Paul Wright, the managing editor of Prison Legal News and the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center told Sputnik’s Political Misfits on Thursday that the new execution method is the latest in a long list of government attempts to “medicalize and sterilize the process of killing people.”

“I think it's worth pointing out from a historical perspective, the United States Supreme Court has never in its entire history ever found a means of execution to be unconstitutional in this country. They rubber-stamp everything,” Wright explained. “They rubber-stamped the electric chair even when people were catching on fire. They're okay with hanging, even though people are decapitated by it. They're okay with the gas chamber, even when people are choking to death, even when there's a risk of killing the bystanders because the seals on the gas chamber haven't been properly maintained, as almost happened in Mississippi.”

Wright notes that previous execution methods were all proposed as a more humane method, but each had their problems.

“The electric chair was posited as being an improvement over hanging people. The gas chamber was supposed to be an improvement over electrocuting people. Lethal injection was supposedly an improvement over all these other means of killing people. Now this nitrogen means of killing people is supposedly the answer to lethal injection,” But, Wright adds that this method is not being advertised as more humane, but a more convenient way of killing inmates. “The reason lethal injection is falling from favor is not because the government suddenly decided, 'Hey, we're botching too many executions. It's cruel and unusual. We're inflicting suffering needlessly. ' No, the reason they're moving away from lethal injection is because the drug companies that manufacture the drug that they use in these drug cocktails to kill people have been bought [through] European countries. And these European companies are saying, ‘Hey, we're in the business of producing drugs to help people, not to kill people. We don't want our drugs being used for the murder of people.”

The Department of Corrections has declined to release documents related to the execution, including waivers that had to be signed by Smith’s religious counsel, to media outlets. Wright argues that is part of a growing trend of putting a shroud of secrecy around “state murder.”

“When people are actually seeing how the death penalty is being carried out by the government, I think that's some of what led to the increasing public revulsion against the death penalty,” Wright said. “Now they're [executing inmates] in prisons, behind high walls.”

Wright compared the method to tying "a plastic bag over [the inmate's] head" and executing them that way.

Wright concludes by noting that public support of the death penalty has nevertheless been dropping since its modern peak in the early 1990s and that juries are returning fewer death sentences. “It seems like the only people that are really enamored of the death penalty in this country are politicians and justices,” he said.

The judge in the Smith case is still considering whether the execution will be allowed to go forward, suggesting on Thursday that the state should change its policies to allow Smith to pray and say his final words before putting the gas mask on, but stressed that the suggestion should not be seen as a hint on how he will rule.