The award-winning voice of North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia.

The Chant

The award-winning voice of North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia.

The Chant

The award-winning voice of North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia.

The Chant

Silent but deadly: nitrogen gas executions

For decades, the death penalty has remained a highly controversial topic. Certain people say that the death penalty should not exist as it exhibits harsh and uncruel punishment. On the other hand, people believe that after committing a serious crime, a person deserves death. However, January 25, Kenneth Smith received one of the slowest and most painful deaths in death row history, which called the extreme controversy into question.

After the jury finds a person guilty of committing a vicious crime, one of several options may occur: a person receives a light consequence, a judge sentences them to a certain amount of years in prison or a warden of the prison performs an execution. From beheading to lethal injections, humans in positions of power have practiced different forms of capital punishment since 3000 BCE. Using the 8th amendment to justify their reasoning, people against the death penalty do not believe executions as a punishment fulfill any purpose. Recently, states such as Mississippi and Alabama have authorized nitrogen hypoxia— a method of suffocating a person by forcing them to breathe pure nitrogen—to execute those convicted of serious crimes. Nitrogen gas should not serve as an execution method, as it appears inhumane and does not reflect the words that the Founding Fathers embedded in the 8th Amendment.

January 25, Kenneth Smith became the first person to receive a nitrogen gas execution in America. Alabama officials executed Smith after Judge N. Pride Tompkins convicted him of murder in 1988 due to stabbing Elizabeth Sennett to death. January 25 also marks the first time a new form of execution came about since states introduced lethal injections in 1982. Smith had already survived one failed execution in November 2022 when executioners spent hours trying to access a vein to inject him with lethal drugs. 

Certain people believe that the executions carried out today occur humanely. Lawyers involved in Smith’s case assured that the nitrogen gas would linger in a mask and kill Smith within seconds, but witnesses of the execution claim that Smith remained conscious for several minutes before his heart stopped. They assert that Smith’s death did not appear quick and painless—as executions should. Certain witnesses say that the event appeared rather disturbing compared to other forms of execution. Nevertheless, states have decided to follow the bandwagon. Louisiana Representative Nicholas Muscarello filed a bill that proposed adding nitrogen gas and electrocution to the list of authorized methods.

“I have never been a big fan of the death penalty but at the same time, people get what they deserve. I think that the death penalty through nitrogen gas is very harmful and there are other ways of execution. The topic of the death penalty has been very controversial for long but this case is different,” senior Grayson Hodges said. 

The 8th Amendment states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” With executions such as lethal injection, the electrocution chair and gas chambers do not mirror the expectations listed in the 8th Amendment. Nitrogen gas as an execution method further distorts these guidelines as the recipient must endure agony for minutes before actually dying, leading to an inhumane death. 

Witnesses reported that Smith had appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney, sometimes pulling against the restraints, meaning that his execution did not take place in a quick and timely manner. During an execution, death should occur within seven minutes of the procedure, but in Smith’s case, death did not occur until 22 minutes after the mask the warden of prison placed the mask on his face. Nitrogen gas raises ethical and moral questions about the humanness of the execution process, as it lacks physical indicators traditionally associated with distress and suffering during execution.

Correctional officers can run into risks when acquiring nitrogen gas. Because of these risks, a trained correctional officer or healthcare worker would need to place a tight mask over the inmate’s face. The executioner would also need to control the flow of nitrogen so that it cannot escape and endanger prison personnel and observers since nitrogen appears colorless and odorless.  

“Tonight, Alabama causes humanity to take a step backward. I’m leaving with love, peace and light. Thank you for supporting me. Love, love all of you,” Smith said.




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About the Contributor
Lauren Lee, Copy Editor
Lauren Lee, a senior at NC, is an editor for The Chant. She joined in January 2022 during her sophomore year. She loves writing about recent global events and health crises; she finds a way to turn these topics into impactful and enticing articles. She can be seen reading the New York Times daily to research information about national and global issues. Helping others become better writers and finding their passion also lies in her interests. When she is not writing, she is volunteering at food banks, spending time with family and friends  and shopping.   

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    Robert CollinsMar 2, 2024 at 8:17 PM

    Put the convict to death using the EXACT same way the convict murdered their victim. Screw inhumane.