For over three months the world has watched in horror and people have demonstrated in the millions as the genocide of the Palestinian people happens before our eyes. Palestinian prisoners are captured, tortured and abused daily.
On Jan. 25, the state of Alabama added to our collective distress by executing a man by the first-of-a-kind, experimental method nitrogen hypoxia. With a collective worldwide gasp, people reacted to another horror – a domestic horror.
Kenneth Smith was the victim of this tortuous legal lynching at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. Compounding his trauma was the fact that just over a year ago, Alabama attempted to kill him by lethal injection, but after four hours of stabbing and cutting him, prison workers tried unsuccessfully to insert an intravenous line into his arms, hands and even a vein near his heart.
So, this time, his face was covered with a gas mask, and he and the mask were strapped to a gurney as Smith was suffocated to death in an agonizing procedure never done before on a human.
In fact, in 2020 the American Veterinary Medical Association, founded in 1863, representing over 99,500 U.S. veterinarians, said using nitrogen hypoxia was unacceptable as a euthanization method for all mammals, except pigs. This legal lynching by nitrogen suffocation was the first time a new method of execution was used in the U.S since 1982 when Texas introduced lethal injection.
Independent journalist Lee Hedgepeth said: “After the execution began, Kenny began to violently push against the straps. His head began to move back and forth violently. I have never seen such a violent reaction to an execution, and I have witnessed five executions in Alabama.”
Hedgepeth spoke at a press conference held by anti-death penalty activists within an hour after the execution. Other witnesses said that Smith’s reaction to the lack of oxygen caused thrashing so strong that the gurney he was strapped on began shaking.
Reaction was swift, as well as from the other journalists and Smith’s spiritual adviser, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Hood, who witnessed the execution.
‘Corrections Department lied to us’
Before the execution, the Alabama Department of Corrections said that the incarcerated Smith would be unconscious in seconds and die within minutes. This was a lie. Since nitrogen had never been used before, they had no idea of what would take place. Many critics of the new execution method feared it would be cruel and unusual, and the last 22 minutes of Smith’s life proved them correct.
In Alabama, activist Alli Sullivan said, “We were lied to by every single entity in Alabama involved with implementing this method of execution. We were told it would take seconds for Kenneth to lose consciousness and a few minutes for him to die. It took 22 minutes. We were told it would be the most humane execution method ever used. Kenny violently convulsed for several minutes. There were bodily secretions that developed on the inside of the gas mask.”
Attorney John Palombi, who represents incarcerees in Alabama and had requested execution by nitrogen hypoxia, said in a statement; “The State promised the world the most humane method of execution known to man. Instead, Mr. Smith writhed and thrashed before he died. No further executions should take place by this method until the events of this evening are examined by an independent body.”
The New York Times reported Maya Foa, the joint executive director of Reprieve, a human rights group, disputed Alabama’s claim that nitrogen hypoxia would be humane, Foa said “lethal injection had also been called ‘humane’ but has since been compared by federal judges to being waterboarded or burned at the stake. Executing states are constantly looking for ways to pretend that executions are medical and modern, not brutal and violent.” (tinyurl.com/2x4cjhu5)
‘Let’s just end the death penalty’
Criticism of the execution poured in from around the world from organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union and Amnesty International. “He was writhing and clearly suffering,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. Human Rights Office, at a U.N. briefing in Geneva. “Rather than looking for novel, untested methods to execute people, let’s just bring an end to the death penalty. This is an anachronism that doesn’t belong in the 21st century.”
The diplomatic service of the European Union issued a statement: “According to leading experts, this method is a particularly cruel and unusual punishment,” The 27-nation EU and the Geneva-based U.N. rights office assert the death penalty violates the right to life and does not deter crime.
Long history of prisoner abuse
The Alabama prison system has a long history of abusing those it incarcerates. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, an internationally known public interest lawyer and bestselling author of ”Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” the Alabama DOC is filled with violence. The EJI says, “In the past year, the [Alabama] DOC stopped publishing information on deaths in its monthly statistical reports and stopped answering questions from members of the media about deaths in custody.”
Alabama’s prisons have become increasingly deadly over the past decade. The homicide rate in the state’s prisons vastly exceeds that of other states. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics states Alabama’s portion of U.S. prison homicides doubled between 2014 and 2019.
In 2019 alone, Alabama’s prisons housed just 1.5% of the country’s prison population, yet one-in-nine state prison homicides across the U.S. happened in Alabama. Since then, state prison conditions have grown worse. In 2022, 274 people died in Alabama’s prisons—the most in the state’s history. Nearly a third of those deaths were due to homicide, suicide, or overdose, according to ADOC’s quarterly reports.
Holman prison rebellion
In 2016, Holman prison incarcerees rebelled. Using cell phones smuggled into the prison, men sent out messages about overcrowding, mistreatment and torture.
The Guardian newspaper wrote that the rebellions at Holman were as “predictable as boiling water. So predictable, in fact, that the prison may have been understaffed because guards sensed violence was coming, and stayed home to avoid it – in the process making riots even more likely. On the day of the rebellion there were only 17 guards overseeing 991 prisoners.” (March 20, 2016)
“Pressure builds in prisons,” said attorney Lisa Graybill, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s incarceration analysis. “Until it boils over, she said, “and it forces society to face it.”
The torturous murder of Smith was a continuation of Holman’s history of degrading treatment of the incarcerated. Gary Drinkard, sent to Alabama’s death row in 1995, and finally exonerated in 2001, was a good friend of Kenny Smith.
Drinkard told Workers World that when he got to death row “Kenny lent me some coffee, some tobacco, and taught him something about the law. He was a good guy, and this execution was rough. It took 22 minutes to kill him, and it was torture. Now I’m afraid other states will jump on this because they can’t get lethal injection drugs. It’s gonna be horrible. No one should be executed, and no one should ever be tortured.”
Smith’s execution was inexcusable. It is up to our class, the working class, to end all forms of execution and torture from Palestine to Alabama. The struggle continues!