State prisons plan use of nitrogen to carry out death penalty

By Joe Swanson
January 22, 2024

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska would become the fourth state in the U.S. where prisoners subject to the death penalty would be suffocated to death by forcing them to breathe pure nitrogen gas under a bill introduced here by State Sen. Loren Lippincott. The other three are Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma.

Seventeen of Nebraska’s 49 state senators have signed on as co-sponsors of Lippincott’s bill.

The nitrogen protocol, where a mask that fits tightly over the inmate’s nose and mouth would deliver pure nitrogen, causes death by hypoxia. Nebraska’s current method of execution is by lethal injection.

Using nitrogen to kill prisoners sentenced to death has never been tried in the U.S. No one knows what will actually happen. Alabama is the only state that has developed a “protocol” for actually carrying out such executions, but the copy of it that was made public is heavily redacted.

Alabama inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith is set to be the first guinea pig for the procedure, sentenced to be executed Jan. 25.

Smith has been on death row for three decades after being convicted of a 1988 murder. The jury voted 11-1 for life imprisonment, but the judge overrode their decision and sentenced Smith to death.

Alabama officials had previously attempted to execute Smith in November 2022, but failed to insert an IV line for the lethal injection. They poked and cut him for hours trying, finally giving up.

A panel of U.N. special human rights rapporteurs has called on state officials to cancel Smith’s execution, saying nitrogen hypoxia “may subject him to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or even torture.”

“This is akin to death by being ejected into the vacuum of space,” Joel Zivot, a professor of anesthesiology at Emory University, told Newsweek.

In a phone interview with the Lincoln Journal Star, Lippincott callously said, “It would be effective and a very humane way of putting a person to death.”

Nebraska is one of 27 states where the death penalty is still on the books. Four people have been executed here since 1976. The last was the 2018 execution of Carey Dean Moore. He was killed with an untested four-drug cocktail featuring fentanyl, the opioid drug responsible for thousands of overdose deaths in working-class communities around the country.

“The shift to using nitrogen for executions has come as pharmaceutical companies have limited the availability of certain drugs, like sodium thiopental, for executions,” Alex Houchin, development coordinator of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told the Militant. “People who make pharmaceuticals, generally speaking, make them to help people. There’s no clean way to kill somebody.”

The death penalty is a class weapon used by the capitalist rulers to dehumanize and terrorize working people.