Anti-Death Penalty Advocates Urge U.N. Probe Into Alabama's Nitrogen Gas Execution

The groups claim that the state of Alabama and its officials violated international human rights laws banning torture and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment.

Anti-death penalty advocates sent letters to the United Nations and the International Criminal Court last week, calling for an investigation into Alabama’s execution of Kenneth Smith by asphyxiation from nitrogen gas.

The letters were penned by Smith’s spiritual adviser, Jeff Hood, along with Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, a group run by people on death row. They claim that the nitrogen execution, the first of its kind in the U.S., was an “act of torture” and that Alabama violated international human rights laws.

Smith, 58, was pronounced dead on Jan. 25 at 8:25 p.m. local time. According to the Associated Press, he “appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney″ as he died, ”sometimes pulling on the restraints” for at least two minutes, followed by several minutes of heavy breathing.” Hood and others who witnessed the execution recounted similar details in their letters.

The letters pointed out that the state officials responsible for authorizing this method of execution need to be held accountable, but so do the individuals who carried out the actions. The letters name four staffers of the state’s correctional department and facility who carried out the execution and call for them to be prosecuted.

“I think that it begins with the four folks in that room. But it goes beyond that. It goes so much further beyond that,” Hood told HuffPost.

“I don’t see these four people as any different than any other bad actors in history. They are perpetuating injustice, they’re perpetuating murder, and they are perpetuating crimes against humanity,” he continued.

In 2018, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a law authorizing nitrogen executions following a shortage of lethal injection drugs, and as a lawsuit filed by death row individuals challenged the constitutionality of lethal injection in the state.

The law made Alabama the third state in the country to allow nitrogen gas as a method of execution, but lethal injection remained the primary method for capital punishment, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.

Last week, the U.N. secretary-general sent out a call for accounts and responses about the death penalty to use in a report on the controversial practice at the next U.N. general assembly. Hood and PHADP submitted letters to the secretary-general, but also sent separate letters to the International Criminal Court asking for a probe into the death penalty in Alabama.

Smith was sentenced to life without parole in 1996, but a judge overruled the jury’s decision to spare him — a practice that is no longer legal — and condemned Smith to death. In November, Smith survived a botched execution by lethal injection, as had happened to several other death row prisoners in the state before him.

According to court documents, Smith was strapped to a gurney for more than four hours. Execution officials then unsuccessfully attempted to inject him with the drugs required for lethal injection, causing severe pain and breathing difficulty, according to a complaint from Smith’s lawyers.

“They were just sticking me over and over, going in the same hole like a freaking sewing machine,” Smith told NPR in December. “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.”

The execution was called off later that night and Smith was left unable to walk or stand and traumatized by the botched execution, the complaint said. The state later selected him to be the first person executed with nitrogen gas. Smith told NPR he was “terrified” by the prospect.

The White House said that it was “troubled” by Smith’s nitrogen gas execution, and affirmed President Joe Biden’s opposition to the death penalty and support for Attorney General Merrick Garland’s moratorium on the practice.

But Hood believes that it is unlikely that the U.S. government will hold anyone accountable for Smith’s death.

“This sort of investigation is not going to happen in the United States. Governments are not going to do this,” Hood said. “But we believe that the international community has loudly stated, it’s wrong to get people to kill people who are unarmed, it’s wrong to gas people to death, it’s wrong to create systemic apparatuses of killing civilians.”

Hood acknowledged that the letters to the U.N. and International Criminal Court serve as a form of documentation, so that one day “when executions are no more … the international community will lead the charge to punish the actors that perpetuated it.”

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