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Alabama Kills Prisoner Who Survived Lethal Injection In First-Ever Nitrogen Gas Execution

filed in federal court shortly after the execution attempt.

Then, the IV team tilted the gurney back, forcing Smith into a “reverse crucifixion position with his head below his feet,” the complaint said. He was jabbed five or six times with a clear syringe and poked multiple times with a large-gauge needle in his collarbone. Smith was in so much pain that he resisted the restraints, injuring his shoulder and struggling to breathe.

“They were just sticking me over and over, going in the same hole like a freaking sewing machine,” Smith told NPR in an interview last year. “I was absolutely alone in a room full of people, and not one of them tried to help me at all — and I was crying out for help.”

When the execution was finally called off, Smith was unable to stand, walk or dress himself unassisted, the complaint said. He experienced severe post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, including nightmares, hypervigilance, hyperarousal and dissociation up until his death.

Before his first execution date, Smith sued Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm, alleging that the state’s lethal injection procedure violated the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has previously held that for a challenge to an execution method to prevail, the prisoner must select an alternative method that is feasible, available and reduces the risk of pain.

Smith identified nitrogen hypoxia as an alternative, but the state argued it was not an “available” alternative.

“Then, on the eve of being required to disclose information regarding its failed attempt to execute Mr. Smith by lethal injection, ADOC suddenly changed course, now claiming it is prepared to carry out executions using nitrogen hypoxia,” Smith’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

The lawyers warned that the one-size-fits-all mask used to deliver the nitrogen gas may not form an adequate seal and could allow oxygen into the mask. If that occurred, they said, Smith could experience a prolonged, painful death, stroke or a persistent vegetative state.

The lawyers also cited concerns with the purity of the nitrogen and a lack of clarity around how it would be stored to prevent contamination. Airgas, a gas distributor in Alabama, previously said it would not supply nitrogen for executions, according to AL.com, a local news outlet.

Although Smith proposed nitrogen as an alternative to lethal injection, he did not agree to be killed under a process that “was hastily introduced as a means to moot Mr. Smith’s pending litigation about [the Alabama Department of Corrections’] previous failed attempt to execute him by lethal injection and forestall discovery into it,” his lawyers wrote.

United Nations experts warned earlier this month that nitrogen executions likely violate international prohibitions on torture.

“We are all complicit as Alabama moves forward with a state-sponsored killing that evokes troubling memories of the Holocaust,” said Miriam Krinsky, the executive director Fair and Just Prosecution, a group of progressive prosecutors.

“As a civilized nation, our desire for retribution should never outweigh our humanity,” she said in a statement. “Today we fail that basic test. We unequivocally condemn this execution and once again urge policymakers across the country to abolish the barbaric use of capital punishment.”

Taiyler S. Mitchell contributed reporting.

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