Horror Screenwriter Dreamed Up Untried Execution Method

Nitrogen hypoxia to be tested in US first despite claims of cruelty
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 25, 2024 11:38 AM CST
Horror Screenwriter Dreamed Up Untried Execution Method
This undated photo provided by the Alabama Department of Corrections shows inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, who was convicted in a 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher's wife.   (Alabama Department of Corrections via AP, File)

The US could see its first execution with nitrogen gas Thursday after the Supreme Court and 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals both declined a request for a stay Wednesday. The Supreme Court didn't comment, while the Court of Appeals said Kenneth Smith, convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a pastor's wife, didn't have sufficient support for his claims that the untested "nitrogen hypoxia" method would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, per the AP. Unless the Supreme Court overturns that verdict, 58-year-old Smith is likely to be executed at 6pm in Alabama, one of only three states to approve the execution method dreamed up by a screenwriter of horror films.

  • Stuart Creque, a screenwriter and technology marketing executive, was a college dropout with zero training in medicine or toxicology when he first proposed execution by nitrogen gas in a 1995 National Review article titled "Killing With Kindness," per the New Yorker in 2015. He claimed the method "put people to sleep" without pain, physical trauma, or "hazardous chemicals."

  • Writing in the Wall Street Journal in September, Creque claimed "nitrogen anoxia" or the "total depletion of blood oxygen" is "a nearly perfect method of execution"—"painless and quick," beginning with loss of consciousness and ending with death by asphyxiation. He cited various industrial accidents in claiming the "effects are well-understood, consistent and reliable."
  • But "states can't simply re-create the conditions of industrial accidents in order to kill their prisoners," writes the Atlantic's Elizabeth Bruenig, highlighting potential dangers to execution staff and witnesses. Given Alabama's history of botched executions using tried and true methods, "there is reason to doubt that Alabama will be able to pull off the world's first execution by nitrogen gas flawlessly."
  • "If the seal on the execution mask does not adhere properly, or if a valve on the gas-delivery mechanism detaches, staff in the execution chamber may be at risk of injury or worse," writes Bruenig. Though the state Department of Corrections "claims to have placed oxygen monitors in the execution chamber to guard against such a disaster, plans to test these monitors were not included in its protocol."

  • The protocol involves placing a "full facepiece supplied air respirator" over the death row inmate's face. Nitrogen will be fed through the mask for at least 15 minutes or "five minutes following a flatline indication on the EKG, whichever is longer," the AP reports.
  • Dr. Philip Nitschke, an expert who backs the use of nitrogen gas in euthanasia, worries leaks in the mask due to facial hair or jaw movements could create "a very rather macabre, slow process" of death, per the AP. Smith's lawyers say oxygen entering the mask could cause the inmate to "asphyxiate on his own vomit," "experience the sensation of suffocation," suffer a stroke, or be left in a persistent vegetative state, per the Atlantic.
  • Though SCOTUS could find evidence of cruel and unusual punishment and overturn the lower court's ruling, "I remain confident that the Supreme Court will come down on the side of justice, and that Smith's execution will be carried out," Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said late Wednesday, per the AP.
(More execution stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.