Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

OP-ED: Alabama’s New Nitrogen Gas Execution Method is Immoral

The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in San Francisco, Calif.

Kenneth Smith was executed in Alabama with nitrogen gas, breathing strictly nitrogen through a face mask before passing away from oxygen deprivation on Jan. 25. This was the first time this method was ever used in the U.S. and the first new method of execution used since 1982.

It also brings forward the question of what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishments” under the Eighth Amendment and the morals behind capital punishment as a whole. With descriptions from witnesses, and overall imagining a method of execution that deprives someone of oxygen, the practice seems as though it has definitely moved past constitutional and moral limits with this new method.

The most common justifications for the death penalty are its deterrent and retributive effects. The ideology behind deterrence as a justification is that the threat of execution as a punishment for a crime subsequently causes a decrease in crime. Another justification for the death penalty is retribution, the idea that a punishment should be proportionate to a crime.

“What are we trying to accomplish?” Vanderbilt history professor Joel Harrington said. “With violent crime, you want to get this person out of society, but we also want to take vengeance on them.”

A punishment crosses into a “cruel and unusual” punishment gray area if the severity of the punishment passes the severity of the crime. According to a 2021 study from the Pew Research Center, 60% of Americans favor the death penalty while 39% oppose it when someone is convicted of murder. These statistics show that even when extreme crimes are committed, a large number of Americans do not agree with the death penalty as a mode of punishment. This is an important statistic to think about because if a lot of Americans don’t believe in it, it could be perceived as both too cruel and too unusual. 

Overall, it is hard to deny that this new method is “cruel and unusual.” Not only is this unusual, being that it is the first of its kind and the first new method of execution in 40 years, it is also overtly cruel.

“Legal authorities get worried because [people suffering] makes you question the death sentence itself,”  Harrington said about the death penalty. “[Finding new methods] is just meant to convince us that this is a fair and just punishment, and we can do it without pain.”

After Smith’s execution, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall described the nitrogen gas method. 

“The law authorizing the execution method was enacted in 2018 and was intended to be—and has now proved to be — an effective and humane method of execution,” Marshall said. “Alabama has achieved something historic.”

In his statement, Marshall seems to celebrate Alabama’s historic step in execution technology and the effectiveness of this previously untested method. 

While the Attorney General insists that the execution proved to be “humane” and “effective,” it is in the best interest of the government to do so when trying to prove to the public that capital punishment is humane and effective. However, Harrington pointed out that the electric chair “is not more human, but maybe they thought it was.” 

While state officials insisted that this method would be humane and quick, and Smith would go unconscious in “seconds,” the limited number of people who actually witnessed the event said that Smith “remained conscious for several minutes.” Witnesses described it as “profoundly disturbing.” 

Reporter Marty Roney had been present at two other executions where a lethal injection was used. According to Ronoey, after the lethal injection was administered, there was minimal movement or seeming distress in comparison to the execution by nitrogen gas. 

“For four minutes, he was gasping for air,” Roney said. “He was writhing, the gurney was shaking noticeably.” 

While Alabama claims for the method to have been a success with minimal pain, the reporters in the witness room beg to differ. With the controversy that this method of execution generated, this unprecedented execution highlights future instances where cruel and unusual punishment methods may be employed.

Image by Emiliano Bar from Unsplash.

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