Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Opinion | The brutal executions in Alabama prisons must end

CW File

In 2015, Oklahoma announced it would begin executing death row inmates with nitrogen when low on the pharmaceuticals required for lethal injections. Now, their officials are looking into nitrogen hypoxia, as nitrogen makes up 78% of our atmosphere and is in ready abundance. 

Oklahoma, however, has not utilized the death penalty since a series of botched executions in 2015, before it became the first state that planned to experiment with the new method of execution.

Eight years later, two more states, Alabama and Mississippi, have authorized the use of nitrogen hypoxia. Now, Alabama wants to be the first state to use it.

Alabama authorized the method in 2018 amid a shortage of use in lethal injections. Attorney General Steve Marshall, who earlier this year was working to prohibit women from accessing health care and exercise their bodily autonomy, now wants to push the boundaries on how to kill adults in prison in inhumane ways. 

Most Americans, specifically Alabamians, do not know what happens inside the death chamber. The lethal injection is widely considered a simple and quick method of execution, but headlines in the past few years have begun to make us think otherwise.

Three of the last four executions in Alabama have been mismanaged, resulting in the longest execution in the United States, in which the execution team spent over four hours poking and prodding to find Kenneth Smith’s veins. 

He was given shots of unknown sedatives, which he specifically said he did not want. When personnel were frustrated with the difficulty finding a vein, they began attempting to stab a large needle into his chest underneath the collarbone. The next day, Gov. Kay Ivey called for an internal investigation “top-to-bottom” of the way these procedures are performed.

Smith was originally granted a sentence of life without the chance of parole, but this notion was overruled by a judge, giving him the death penalty instead. Since 2018, Alabama has been the only state to abandon an in-progress execution.  Now, they want to try to execute him again, this time using nitrogen to effectively suffocate Smith.  

The investigation that Ivey called for lasted four months and was completely internal. With no new eyes on the problems within, it seems no real progress has been made, no meaningful changes in protocol. The state is reverting to a more barbaric form of death for those on death row. 

In fact, in Ivey’s statement, she seemed more interested in the feelings and wellness of the families being brought into Holman Correctional Facility, the only facility that performs executions in Alabama.

Smith is one of two men to have survived the lethal injection, but only because his veins couldn’t be found. In 2018, when Alan Miller was convicted, the use of nitrogen hypoxia had just been approved, and he wanted to opt for that method of execution.

Two months before Smith went under the needle, and 10 days before his planned execution on Sept. 22, officials claimed there was a “very good chance” that Miller could receive that method. This was not the case. After his botched execution, the state agreed that he would only be executed again by means of nitrogen hypoxia. 

We think we’re working toward something better, something more humane, but the oldest forms of execution all end in the same way. Live burial, drowning and nitrogen hypoxia all result in the same suffocation. The only difference is how the method is presented to the public.

If we surround the inmate with medical professionals and strap them down to a gurney, this method looks well controlled and efficient. Some parties argue that this form of execution is painless, but since it’s never been tested, we cannot be sure.

The specifics of this method have not been shared with the people of Alabama, who are only a few layers disconnected from the execution performed in what the state wants them to believe is their best interest. Marshall claims divulging any information could pose a security risk. 

In the last decade, there has been an uptick in states placing a legislative ban on the death penalty and instead replacing it with a life sentence with no chance for parole. An action like this in Alabama could be a move in the right direction.

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