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Saturday, May 25, 2024
Criminal Justice

Minister sues Alabama Department of Corrections over proposed nitrogen execution

The spiritual advisor to a man scheduled to be executed by Alabama in January has filed a lawsuit alleging that a new method of execution will interfere with his pastoral duties.

In the lawsuit filed Wednesday against Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner John Hamm and Holman Correctional Facility warden Terry Raybon, the Rev. Jeff Hood, the spiritual advisor to Kenneth Eugene Smith, alleged that the state’s proposal to execute Smith by nitrogen gas in January will require him to stay three feet away from Smith, because the state believes it could potentially kill Hood.

That, Hood said, would prevent him from laying his hand on Smith during the execution.

“There is no scientific basis nor was evidence taken during the passage of this legislation or producing the protocol that indicates this ‘safe area’ would make anyone safe,” the motion stated. “Given that nitrogen does not warn of its presence and that it is ambient and can move anywhere in the room, it is unlikely it would stay within the safe area.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections said Thursday it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that states must accommodate requests of death row inmates for prayers and physical contact with their pastors during executions. The decision came in a case involving John Henry Ramirez, a Texas inmate who challenged state regulations attempting to enforce silence and distance between him and his pastor during the execution process.

“(The ADOC is) hostile toward religion. Indeed, they deny a prisoner his chosen spiritual advisor’s touch at the most critical juncture of his life, his death,” the motion states.

According to a redacted protocol, DOC will place a mask over Smith’s face and expose him to nitrogen for at least 15 minutes. Nitrogen executions have never been conducted on a human. The American Veterinary Medical Association generally discourages its use in the euthanasia of animals, and recommends the administration of a sedative prior the procedure. Alabama’s execution protocol does not say if a condemned inmate will receive a sedative.

During a press conference Thursday morning, Hood said that he was rushed to sign a waiver acknowledging that he, too, could be poisoned by nitrogen, although deemed “highly unlikely.”

The hose delivering gas to Smith’s mask could become detached, leading to the release of a small area of nitrogen gas (approximately two feet) that could pose a risk. The document said gas sensors in the room would serve as a safety precaution.

When a death row inmate is given a date for the execution, they have five days to choose a spiritual advisor, according to Alabama’s execution procedures approved in August.

“I don’t know about most people, because most people don’t have to sign a waiver like this,” Hood said. “Five days feels like a kind of a short time to be able to talk to your family and think about what is the whole world of realm of possibilities that could happen.”

He said that Smith asked him, “Are you willing to die to be my spiritual advisor?”

“The problem is that they’re telling me what nitrogen is and what a nitrogen execution looks like, and they don’t know what a nitrogen execution looks like because the protocol is consistently being revised,” Hood said. “So they’re asking me to sign a waiver for something that they themselves don’t even have figured out yet.”

Smith, convicted of the 1988 murder-for-hire of Elizabeth Sennett, was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in November 2022. Smith and his attorneys say officials kept him strapped to a gurney while puncturing him with needles.

Alabama carried out two executions in 2023. James Edward Barber was executed in July and Casey McWhorter was executed in November.

Smith’s execution is scheduled to take place on January 25 or 26.

This story was produced by the Alabama Reflector which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. 

This article from the Daily Montanan appears in this post, with permission, under a Creative Commons BY ND-NC 4.0 license.

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