Human rights expert fears new method of execution will spread


The controversial execution of Kenneth Smith in Alabama was a “bad day for humanity” according to a human rights expert from Birmingham City University (BCU).


Birmingham City University

Professor Jon Yorke, Director of the Centre for Human Rights at BCU, fears more states across the USA will now adopt nitrogen gas as a means to kill inmates on death row. 

He also argues that the method of execution, which was being used for the first time, was both untested and inhumane, and says Smith, 58, did not receive a fair trial, a claim supported by the United Nations (UN).  

"It looks like Alabama has created a system in which they'll be able to kill people in 20 to 40 minutes, from the beginning to the end of the process,” said Professor Yorke.

“So has Alabama reduced the time frame for executions? Yes. Has Alabama been able to validate the pain someone will feel when they are being executed by nitrogen gas? No.

“The fear I have is that this will open up the door for America to advance this method of execution so more states will use it to kill more of the population on death row.”

Working with Dr Joel Zivot, an anaesthesiologist and surgeon at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Professor Yorke brought Smith’s case to the UN's attention in November 2023.

But after surviving a botched execution by lethal injection in 2022, Smith was eventually put to death on 25 January after 35 years on death row.

He was one of three men convicted in the murder of Elizabeth Sennett, whose husband, a pastor, had recruited them to rob his house and assault his wife in March 1988.

Capital punishment is currently legal in 27 of the 50 US states - and almost 1,600 executions have been carried out since 1976.

Lethal injection has been the most common form of execution method for the past 40 years. But this has run into issues after dozens of US and European pharmaceutical manufacturers blocked the supply of their drugs for capital punishment.

“Even if a government can create a safe way to kill people, I don't trust legal systems enough to always guarantee that the right people are punished,” added Professor Yorke, who says he will continue advocating for the abolition of the death penalty, not just in the US but around the world.

At the beginning of 2023, there were just over 2,300 inmates on death row in the US, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, but an average of nearly four wrongly convicted prisoners are released each year with evidence of their innocence.

“Governments are supposed to treat even the worst people humanely in order to teach society that you don't react in a horrible way when people do bad things,” added Professor Yorke.

“The more governments execute people, the more it brutalises society.”

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