On January 25, 2024, Kenneth Eugene Smith became the first person to be executed by a state government in this country through a method known as nitrogen hypoxia. Officials at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama at 7:53 p.m. placed a blue industrial-type mask over Smith’s nose and mouth. Pure nitrogen gas was then pumped into Smith’s lungs through the mask. Media reports say that Smith flatlined 5 minutes before he was pronounced dead at 8:25 p.m.


Some human rights experts believe death by nitrogen hypoxia is painful and excruciating. The Smith execution proved them right.


Nitrogen is a gas without oxygen. It is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas and is the most plentiful element in the Earth’s atmosphere.


Life cannot exist without it. Yet it is one of Earth’s deadliest gases. Nitrogen has long been used to extinguish fires by displacing oxygen in enclosed areas. 


When given to a human being, there will be burning, swelling, and spasms in the throat and upper respiratory tract during the first 30 seconds; oxygen depletion resulting in brain cells dying after one minute; a buildup of drowning-like fluid in the lungs producing unconsciousness after one and one-half minutes; the death of most brain cells after three minutes; and finally death by suffocation after five minutes. 


That is the way the State of Alabama—a state with a long, sordid history of botched executions—executed Kenneth Eugene Smith on January 25, 2024. 


What do we know about the Kenneth Smith death process?


Witnesses reported that shortly after the gas was administered, Smith began to shake and writhe about on the gurney for at least two minutes. Smith’s spiritual advisor, who was in the execution chamber with Smith, told the media that prison officials could not conceal their collective shock at the “horror show” they were witnessing. Hood said everyone, including prison staff, had been led to believe that the execution would be “quick, easy and painless,” but the entire process turned out to be nothing short of “horrific,” comparable to a Hollywood horror movie.


What witnesses saw was a man struggling to breathe, fighting to live for at least ten violent minutes before all movement ceased at 8:08 p.m.


The United States ranks seventh in the world at carrying out executions. Alabama officials hailed Smith’s execution as “textbook” perfect. This new-found method, given its degree of barbarity, will undoubtedly increase its use in the Confederate states and their neighbors as the most effective way to thin out their crowded death row populations.


Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall spearheaded the protocols for Smith’s execution. These protocols will likely be adopted, with slight modifications, by other death penalty active states:


  • The condemned inmate will be escorted to the execution chamber and placed on a gurney. A pulse oximeter will be secured on the inmate.
  • The execution team will place and adjust a mask on the inmate’s face. One team member will monitor the pulse oximeter while the execution team captain verifies that the mask is properly placed.
  • The inmate’s spiritual advisor, if there is one, will be escorted to the execution chamber to carry out any previously approved written plan.
  • The warden will order the curtains to the witness rooms opened after verifying there are no last-minute stays.
  • The warden will read the execution warrant.
  • The inmate will be allowed up to two minutes to make a final statement. The warden and assistant warden will leave the execution chamber.
  • The warden will make a final check with the commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections that there are no last-minute stays.
  • The execution team will conduct a final inspection of the mask.
  • The warden will activate the nitrogen hypoxia system. Nitrogen gas will be administered for 15 minutes or five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer.
  • Once the execution is carried out, the execution team captain will be notified via radio and will close the curtains.
  • The spiritual advisor, if any, will be escorted from the chamber.


It was Attorney General Marshall who said Smith’s execution was “textbook” perfect and will be used in 43 more executions by Alabama death row inmates who have elected to die by nitrogen hypoxia. 


These protocols and Marshall’s “textbook” assertions notwithstanding, Smith’s execution was a gruesome, horrific affair. 

There is no humane way for the State to extinguish the life of a human being, regardless of their criminal transgression. The nearly 16,000 executions carried out in this nation since 1776 by an assortment of methods have demonstrated this ugly reality time and time again.


Attorney General Marshall would have us believe that Smith’s execution by the State of Alabama was humane. That is a despicable lie by a pro-death elected official desperate to find a way to kill people sitting on death row. No Orwellian talk about “protocol” will change the reality. Smith was literally smothered to death.


Kenneth Eugene Smith was terrified about death by nitrogen hypoxia. His execution proved he had every reason to be terrified. He was tortured to death.