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Alabama is set to become the first state to execute an inmate using nitrogen gas

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Later today, Alabama is set to carry out an execution using nitrogen gas. That's a method that's never been used before in the U.S.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But it will be the second time the state will try to execute Kenneth Smith, who survived an execution by lethal injection in 2022. Smith was convicted for his role in a 1988 murder-for-hire plot.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR investigations reporter Chiara Eisner has been covering this story and is in Atmore, Ala. That's where the execution is scheduled to take place around 6 p.m. There's also been a lot of debate over this as well there. Chiara, does it still look like it's going to happen today?

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: It does. And there has been a lot of back-and-forth in Alabama courts. But yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court justices were given a chance to chime in as well. Kenneth Smith's lawyers asked them to consider pausing the execution so they could argue that executing Smith a second time violated his constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court justices denied that attempt, so as of now, the execution is still scheduled for later today.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, nitrogen as a form of execution - I mean, why are they using an untested method for this second attempt to execute Kenneth Smith?

EISNER: Well, back in 2022, Alabama had three high-profile botched executions when the state attempted to execute people with lethal injection. Each of those three times, execution workers from Alabama were unable to quickly place the IV in the veins of the prisoners to deliver the drugs. The first time, they ended up actually executing the prisoner, but it took so long that the family is now suing the state. And those other two times, one of which was Smith's execution, the state had to call the executions off after those workers failed again and again to successfully get the needle in the prisoners' veins. After they left Smith on the gurney for four hours during his failed execution, he and his lawyers argued that the state should never use lethal injection on him again, and Alabama had passed a statute in 2018 that allowed for nitrogen hypoxia as a secondary method, so that was the alternative they had to fall back on.

MARTÍNEZ: This nitrogen that we've been talking about - is it like laughing gas? Is that what we're talking about?

EISNER: No, that is nitrous oxide. This is pure nitrogen gas, which is not administered to humans in medical settings. And it's been deemed by vets to be, quote, "unacceptable" for the euthanization of mammals other than pigs because of its potential for causing distress to those animals.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, OK. Now, you've been reporting on this for a couple months now. You've spoken to Smith and also his spiritual adviser. That spiritual adviser is going to be in the room with him later today. How are they feeling about how prepared the state of Alabama is to carry this out on a person?

EISNER: Yes. So I spoke with the spiritual adviser, Jeff Hood, yesterday, shortly after he saw Smith at the prison and met with the prison's warden. Here's what he told me.

JEFF HOOD: The warden came and took me back to the execution chamber. And I can tell you that what I saw did nothing to minimize my fears. They have proven time and time again that they don't know what they're doing. So I think we're heading into what could possibly - a catastrophe.

EISNER: Reverend Hood will be at the prison from 8:30 in the morning today until 6 p.m., when the execution is scheduled to take place. We'll be there, too, to report on what's happening outside and inside the prison during the execution.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Chiara Eisner, a reporter with NPR's investigations team. Chiara, thank you very much for bringing us this.

EISNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Chiara Eisner
Chiara Eisner is a reporter for NPR's investigations team. Eisner came to NPR from The State in South Carolina, where her investigative reporting on the experiences of former execution workers received McClatchy's President's Award and her coverage of the biomedical horseshoe crab industry led to significant restrictions of the harvest.