Alabama Is Trying To Get Other States To Adopt Their Death Penalty Strategy, After They Used an Untested Method Known Known as Nitrogen Hypoxia
A convicted murder named Kenneth Eugene Smith was executed in Alabama last week, nearly two years after that state’s death squad botched a previous attempt to find an accessible vein for a lethal injection.
What drew attention was that Alabama used an untested method known as nitrogen hypoxia to starve the masked body of oxygen.
From all accounts, including that of the clergyman who stayed with him, it was a gruesome event taking several minutes and causing a lot of distress to the victim. Nevertheless, Alabama state officials deemed the death process successful, and invite other states who have been having trouble getting supplies of lethal drugs for their executions to try the new method.
Over the weekend, there were a good number of calls for yet another review of the death penalty — and this nitrogen strangulation — as being morally defensible. Some 23 states have abolished the death penalty, and Joe Biden has said he would support a national ban, but little has been done about enacting or imposing such a ban. States including Texas, Florida and Alabama have actively revisited such calls, arguing that the death penalty is a fitting punishment and deterrent against violent crime.
How To Execute?
Issues of morality aside, I find a debate about the how-to of death penalty more than a bit odd given the politics of our national abortion discussion.
Despite national polling and the election results in every state where abortion has been put on the public ballot, voters have chosen in every case in favor of laws or constitutional amendments to preserve the choices of abortion to the individual and her doctor and family.
The Right-to-Life folks are so squarely in the camp of promoting life, that Republican-majority legislatures in about half the states are imposing more and more limits on choice, even when medically indicated. In many, as we know, there are draconian threats of prosecuting doctors, hospitals, nurses, even taxi drivers who aid in on-site abortions. Yet the pro-life movement is absent from the death penalty question.
Indeed, we have the Supreme Court ready to question whether oral contraceptives can continue to be prescribed and delivered from afar, and one case in which anti-abortion challengers are asking the court to rule that the Federal Drug Administration was wrong 20 years ago in approving the use of the oral abortion drug mifepristone without ordering more clinical trials. The court has limited that case to approvals since 2020 to use the drug without requiring in-person medical visits, but the principle of holding the FDA to account remains central.
Yet, somehow, it is legally okay for Alabama to turn to an entirely untested use of nitrogen to administer the death penalty without further intervention — even if the results would appear to abridge “cruel and unusual punishment,” outlawed by the courts.
What case law there is about death penalty how-to’s is that the methodology is supposed to be humane. Lethal injection remains the most widely used execution method, but electrocution, gas chamber, hanging and firing squads still exist. Drug companies have objected to their products being used to kill prisoners, however, prompting another look at other means.
Courts have heard challenges to the death penalty over DNA providing late evidence of innocence in the underlying crime, racial bias in sentencing and the nature of legal defenses offered during trial. The death penalty has been studied over whether it indeed deters violent crime rates, with the answer being generally not.
What moral arguments are brought to bear from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and other anti-abortion groups center on the idea that the justice system goes through trials with presentation of evidence to show that juries could say “beyond reasonable doubt” that the death penalty was warranted. use of the death penalty overall, however, has been on the decline. In 27 states that allow the death penalty, 14 have not conducted any executions in the past 10 years, according to CNN. From 1999, when 100 were executed in five states, in 2023, there were 24. Just over half of Americans polled by Gallup last year thought it was applied fairly across the country.
If your hypocrisy meter is running, you do wonder why some deaths are ok by pro-life forces and others not, and why states can just start using new death penalty methods even as we ask the top court to review medical clinical trials for abortion from two decades ago.