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Why do we treat our pets more humanely than a death row inmate?

Authorities in Alabama have come up with a grim and as-yet untested alternative to lethal injection and electric chair – being gassed to death with pure nitrogen, a reputedly ‘painless’ procedure that slowly starves the criminal of oxygen until they die. But would you use it to put down a sickly pet, asks Sean O’Grady

Thursday 25 January 2024 17:06 GMT
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Alabama attorney-general Steve Marshall hopes to have Death Row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith executed with nitrogen gas, an untested method
Alabama attorney-general Steve Marshall hopes to have Death Row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith executed with nitrogen gas, an untested method (Getty Images / The Independent)

Kenneth Eugene Smith is a man on death row in Alabama, and… well, they don’t know how to kill him.

He’s been in jail since 1988, when he was convicted of the coldest of cold-blooded murders – a long sentence by any standards. He was one of two contact killers who, for $1,000 each, murdered the wife of a preacher who wanted her dead so he could collect the life insurance money. It was a grisly murder – assault and multiple stabbings. The preacher did away with himself when he thought he was about to be arrested, and Smith’s accomplice has long since been dispatched by lethal injection.

Smith, however, has survived because the authorities were unable to raise a vein before the death warrant expired. So he survived. Though this may sound a little fanciful, in his latest published prison mug shot, the expression on Smith’s face seems to suggest a man quietly satisfied that he has cheated death for almost 40 years. He may do so again.

Frustrated by the failure of lethal injection, and with older methods of judicial death such as the electric chair or hanging now abandoned, the Alabamans suggest gassing Smith to death with pure nitrogen. This would, probably, have the desired outcome – but, of course, they could botch it. His lawyers suggest that his suffocation, akin to a painful drowning, would be both inhumane and unconstitutional – a kind of “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Alabama inmate to be first prisoner executed with nitrogen gas

And you do have to take the constitution of the United States of America seriously, because it even applies to a low-life like Smith. (I’m leaving aside the obvious issues of human rights and the morality of the death penalty, and they don’t have the ECHR in the States – can you imagine?).

It is causing great angst and confusion in Alabama and beyond, but there is a simple way to determine what to do, and one that speaks to all of us: the dog test.

What, in other words, would you say if you took a much-loved but ailing pet to the vets and they told you that the kindest thing would be to euthanise it? Because if you wouldn’t treat a dog in such a way, you shouldn’t do it to a human being, no matter how evil.

It should go without saying that no vet would suggest hanging your dog or strapping it to a chair and pumping 2,000 volts though it, unless they had an especially macabre sense of humour.

I also think most dog owners would be disgusted by fitting a mask to your hound and administering nitrogen gas, during which process the animal would be terrified, in pain, suffering fits and possibly choking on its own vomit and left in a vegetative state. The gas might even leak and affect others. Understandably, the vet’s preferred method is an injection so the pet can pass on quietly, with some dignity and in peace.

Now, if Smith cannot be easily injected, then it seems a bit ridiculous to, say, subject him to a daily attempt to raise a vein until the execution squad can get the job done – a surely cruel and unusual ritual. Presumably, we’ve also moved beyond using hanging, electrocution, firing squad or decapitation as a bit too messy and theatrical, so in the absence of any other humane method of finishing Smith, they might as well let him moulder in Holman prison for the rest of his days – and he was originally sentenced by the jury to life before the judge intervened and gave Smith the ultimate penalty.

Yet the state seems determined to execute gas Smith with this novel and necessarily untried method that may yet go wrong. As I say, if you shouldn’t happen to a dog, then you oughtn’t do it to a man.

It’s a reminder about why human rights were invented.

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