Nitrogen Gas: The World’s New Form of Execution

By Kat Gingolaski, Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of

On January 25, 2024, Kenneth Smith became the first person in the world to be executed by nitrogen gas.[1]

The United States has multiple methods of execution, with the most common method being lethal injection.[2]However, lethal injection drugs have been more difficult to get in the past years.[3]This drug shortage began in 2010 when the only domestic manufacturer of the drug combination, Hospira, pulled out of the market, stating that it was morally wrong for the organization to sell drugs used in executions.[4] This caused states to look to their other methods of execution, and create new ones.

Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi all approved the use of execution by nitrogen gas.[5] In theory the prisoner is strapped down to a gurney, a mask apparatus is placed over their nose and mouth, and pure nitrogen pumps through.[6] The 100% nitrogen forces oxygen levels in the prisoner’s body to rapidly decline which causes organ failure and death.[7] Alabama State Attorney General Steve Marshall stated that the use of nitrogen gas is “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised”.[8] However, many leading experts disagree. Criminologist Deborah Denno, stated that one of the issues with this method is that the face masks are often not airtight, allowing air in.[9] This causes the execution to last substantially longer than it would if they were breathing in 100% nitrogen.

Kenneth Smith was convicted of murder on March 18, 1998, in Colbert County, Alabama.[10] He was scheduled for execution by lethal injection in November 2022.[11] After his first failed execution attempt via IV, his execution was rescheduled.[12] Subsequently, his attorneys appealed to the United States Supreme Court stating that a second attempt would amount to a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as cruel and unusual punishment. In a 6-3 decision, the Court’s majority declined to grant the stay of execution.[13] Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented and expressed their willingness to hear Smith’s Eighth Amendment claim.[14]

This precedent execution has been condemned by the UN, EU, Amnesty International UK and anti-death penalty activists.[15] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the nitrogen gas “may amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.[16] Alabama officials stated in a court document that they expected Smith to lose consciousness within seconds and die within minutes.[17] Execution witnesses stated that it took about 25 minutes for him to die and he thrashed violently on the gurney for several minutes. Journalist Lee Hedgepeth, who witnessed four executions, claimed that “I’ve never seen a condemned inmate thrash in the way that Kennth Smith reacted to the nitrogen gas”[18] and Reverend Jeff Hood stated that “what we saw was minutes of someone struggling for their life.”[19]

Marshall proclaimed that he expects this method of execution to be used in the future and has offered to help other states develop their own nitrogen hypoxia protocols.[20]

[1] Alabama can carry out first nitrogen gas execution, federal court says | AP News

[2] 20-287-1.pdf (

[3] Pharmaceutical Firms Against Lethal Injection and the Ramifications – The Philosophy, Politics, and Economics Review (

[4] Id.

[5] Alabama executes a man with nitrogen gas for the first time | AP News

[6] gov.uscourts.almd.81685.16.1.pdf (

[7] Id.

[8] Why has Alabama executed a man using nitrogen gas? (

[9] Id.

[10] Kenneth Eugene Smith executed by nitrogen hypoxia in Alabama, marking a first for the death penalty – CBS News

[11] Id.

[12] “The World is Watching”: Witnesses Report Kenneth Smith Appeared Conscious, “Shook and Writhed” During First-Ever Nitrogen Hypoxia Execution | Death Penalty Information Center

[13] Supreme Court declines to halt first US nitrogen-gas execution in Alabama case | Reuters

[14] 23A688 Smith v. Hamm (01/25/2024) (

[15] USA: Alabama’s ‘cruel’ execution of Kenneth Smith condemned | Amnesty International UK

[16] US: Alarm over imminent execution in Alabama | OHCHR

[17] Alabama can carry out first nitrogen gas execution, federal court says | AP News

[18] Id.

[19] Kenneth Eugene Smith: UN condemns Alabama nitrogen gas execution (

[20] Louisiana lawmaker’s bill would allow nitrogen gas executions (

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