The United Nations and European Union jointly expressed condemnation towards the United States on Friday following the execution of convicted murderer Kenneth Smith in Alabama. Smith’s death marked the first utilization of nitrogen asphyxiation, a controversial and untested method, reigniting the ongoing debate surrounding capital punishment.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall defended the execution, stating that “justice has been served,” while UN human rights chief Volker Turk, the EU, and US civil liberties groups voiced horror and concern over the novel approach.
Volker Turk, denouncing the untested method as potentially amounting to torture, asserted that the use of nitrogen gas raised questions about cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, emphasized the suffering evident during Smith’s execution, advocating for an end to the death penalty, labeling it an anachronism unsuitable for the 21st century. The EU, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, labeled the nitrogen gas execution as “a particularly cruel and unusual punishment.”
Yasmin Cader of the American Civil Liberties Union strongly criticized the gruesome manner of Smith’s death, emphasizing the need to abolish the death penalty instead of devising new and more heinous execution methods. Smith, 58, convicted for the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett, experienced visible distress during the execution, described by local news outlet AL.com as two to four minutes of writhing and thrashing, followed by five minutes of heavy breathing.
The execution was marked by Smith’s last words, where he accused Alabama of causing humanity to take a step backward. The botched execution attempt in November 2022, coupled with the Supreme Court’s rejection of his appeals, added controversy to the case. With 24 executions in the United States in 2023, all by lethal injection, Alabama’s approval of nitrogen hypoxia, shared by Oklahoma and Mississippi, raises concerns. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommendation for sedation in animal euthanization using nitrogen was notably absent in Alabama’s protocol, despite the state defending it as “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised.”
Despite the emotional toll on Smith’s family, speaking through Elizabeth Sennett’s son Mike, the execution drew attention to the broader debate on the death penalty in the United States. With 53 percent of Americans supporting the death penalty for murder convictions, the Gallup Poll reflects the lowest level since 1972. While capital punishment has been abolished in 23 states, six others have imposed a hold on its use, adding to the complexity of the ongoing national discourse on the matter.