A lay Catholic community dedicated to peace efforts has expressed concern about an execution scheduled in Alabama for Jan. 25, set to be carried out using a relatively untested method called nitrogen hypoxia.
The Community of Sant’Egidio, a group founded in Rome and known for mediating conflicts worldwide, shared a petition Jan. 23 urging Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to halt the execution of convicted murderer Kenneth “Kenny” Eugene Smith.
Smith is scheduled to die Thursday after being convicted for the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Dorlene Sennett, whom Sennett’s husband, a Protestant pastor, had paid Smith to kill. The state of Alabama attempted in November 2022 to execute Smith by way of lethal injection but postponed his execution after an attempt to administer the injection was unsuccessful.
Sant’Egidio, which has advocated for many years for an end to the death penalty, says that Smith will be the first person in the world to be executed using nitrogen hypoxia, which involves the fitting of a mask over the condemned person’s face and pure nitrogen — a normally harmless gas — being pumped through it, leading to suffocation.
“We are asking that this execution be stopped because the world cannot afford to regress to the stage of killing in a more barbaric way,” said Mario Marazziti, who heads Sant’Egidio’s death penalty abolition group, as reported Tuesday by ABC News.
The United Nations Human Rights Office warned this month that the novel execution method — which is controversial due to a lack of data on what the inmate could experience during the execution — could amount to torture under international human rights law. In a Jan.16 press release, Ravina Shamdasani, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, noted that nitrogen gas has never been used in the United States to execute human beings.
“The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends giving even large animals a sedative when being euthanized in this manner, while Alabama’s protocol for execution by nitrogen asphyxiation makes no provision for sedation of human beings prior to execution,” the U.N. high commissioner noted.
Catholic Mobilizing Network, a Catholic advocacy group that demonstrates against the death penalty, urged Catholics to speak out against Smith’s scheduled execution and the method being used.
“Kenny should not be subjected to a second execution, especially with the uncertainty that surrounds this new, untested method,” the group said.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Alabama introduced nitrogen hypoxia as a method of execution in August 2023 and is the first state to create and release a protocol for using the method. “Lethal gas” is authorized as an execution method in seven states, though only three have specifically authorized the use of nitrogen, the center states.
Alabama’s death penalty has been under scrutiny for the past several years because of a number of failed executions. A notable botched execution took place in 2018 when Doyle Lee Hamm was strapped to a gurney for two and a half hours as prison medical officials were unable to find a suitable vein for the lethal injection.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Smith’s request to review the constitutionality of his death sentence, the AP reported.