Horror in Alabama: New Method to Execute a Prisoner

The account last month of the execution of Kenneth Smith in an Alabama prison by the use of nitrogen hyposia brought back a wave of memories for me. So let me say this up front right now: If you are a strong supporter of the death penalty, you may want to quit reading this blog right now. I am unalterably opposed to the practice and was radicalized concerning the issue decades ago. So this blog is going to be part memoir, part research-based, and part social and religious commentary from my life, heart, and soul.

So first, a bit of memoir: While on a religious retreat around the year 1994 — I believe I was still in seminary but it may have been a year later when I was preparing to be ordained — I read Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book Dead Man Walking (see lead photo). I became — as I said above — completely radicalized with respect to the death penalty issue. And I remember the quote which, to this day, turned me from a fairly apolitical non-activist into someone who walked picket lines, led crowds at the Virginia Capitol in prayer, and stood witness as my own state executed prisoners. (At the time Virginia was only behind Texas in the number of criminals put to death by state-ordered execution. Thank God, Virginia abolished the death penalty some years ago.) Here is the quote that really precipitated my radical life shift:

It’s not the presence of television cameras or the composition of the crowd or even whether the crowd acts politely or not that makes the execution of a human being ugly. An execution is ugly because the premeditated killing of a human being is ugly. Torture is ugly. Gassing, hanging, shooting, electrocuting, or lethally injecting a person whose hands and feet are tied is ugly. And hiding the ugliness from view and rationalizing it numbs our minds to the horror of what we are doing. This is what truly “coarsens” us. (p. 216)

I published an article based on my experiences titled Primitive Symbolic Consciousness and the Death Penalty in American Culture: Its Meaning and Maintenance [Anglican Theological Review, 2001(4), pp. 717–734]. (See second photo below.) I was a card-carrying member of an anti-death penalty action group based in the Roman Catholic cathedral downtown and had a card in my billfold asserting that if I was ever murdered, I did not want my killer to be executed by the state.

But as I said in my opening, this blog isn’t just a memoir of my journey. My position also rests on empirical data collected over the years by researchers interested in the topic. For example, studies have been carried out that show the lack of deterrence in states where the death penalty is practiced. In studies that have examined murder rates in states that have capital punishment and states that do not, no statistical difference has been found between the two. Furthermore, there seems to be an overwhelming racial bias in those who wind up on death row — black or brown citizens — and the poor versus those who can afford a team of smart lawyers who keep the wealthy out of the death chamber. Also, many unfortunates wind up being exonerated by the Innocence Project — some too late to save their lives.

I realize I’m writing in generalities. There is no doubt that most who wind up being “dead men walking” have done really evil deeds, and many are not “nice people.” (My stepson, a public defender working in post-conviction relief, has had his life threatened more than once by his “clients.”) But given the bias built into the system and the lack of deterrence when executions are carried out, the main remaining reason for the death penalty option is sheer vengeance. And vengeance will not bring back the victim of the original crime; it's simply an ugly motive for humans to enact.

Recalling that passage above from Sister Prejean’s book, if you read the recent account of the Alabama case in The New York Times (January 27, 2024) — see my third photo below — prison officials began pumping nitrogen into Mr. Smith’s mask at 7:56 p.m. A reporter who witnessed the execution wrote a detailed account of his observations:

Mr. Smith began “thrashing against the straps” on the gurney at 7:57 p.m., “his whole body and head violently jerking back and forth for several minutes. Next, Mr. Smith began heaving, and by 8 p.m. he was still gasping for air, his body pulling at the restraints with each gasp, though less forcefully.

“It was appalling,” said Deborah Denno, an expert on execution methods at Fordham University Law School. “Pain for two to four minutes, particularly somebody who’s suffocating to death — that’s a really long period of time and a torturous period of time.”

An ugly show of vengeance. Remember: “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.”

Lord have mercy on us all.

Amen.

 

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.