Right-to-die activist complains that today’s execution in Alabama is bad P.R. for his movement

At 8.25pm on Thursday evening Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was executed in Alabama’s Holman Correctional Facility.

Governor Kay Ivey told the media: “The execution was lawfully carried out by nitrogen hypoxia, the method previously requested by Mr. Smith as an alternative to lethal injection. At long last, Mr. Smith got what he asked for, and this case can finally be put to rest.”

This was the second time that Smith had to prepare himself for his execution. In 2022, prison officials strapped him down on a gurney to inject a lethal drug but they were unable to find a vein.

Alabama allows a second method of execution: nitrogen hypoxia, or breathing pure nitrogen until death ensues. Smith’s lawyers say that a second execution is cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall contends that nitrogen hypoxia is “perhaps the most humane method of execution ever devised.”

As often happens in cases of capital punishment in the US, Smith’s crime happened decades ago. In 1988 he and two accomplices were paid by a local pastor to murder his wife by bludgeoning and stabbing her to death. They were paid US$1000 each. One died in prison; one was executed with a lethal injection in 2010.

The world media has taken a ghoulish interest in this case because of the novel technique. It has “never been used for judicially-sanctioned executions anywhere in the world”, according to an Alabama journalist.

This may be true, but Dr Philip Nitschke, the controversial Australian right-to-die activist, has been using nitrogen to help people to die for decades. He told the New York Times recently that he had been present at around 50 deaths by nitrogen hypoxia. Last year, at the request of Smith's defence team, he visited Smith on death row. 

Nitschke was indignant that he had not been consulted about the details of the execution, as he has had abundant experience in executing people. In 2012 he set up a beer-brewing company in Australia, Mad Dog Brewing, to import nitrogen canisters which he could legally sell to people who wanted to kill themselves.

Nitschke’s Sarco capsule for “self-deliverance” uses nitrogen gas to kill people. Afterwards the sealed capsule can be used as a coffin to save expenses. He has been called the “Elon Musk of assisted suicide” for his ingenuity in employing nitrogen as a lethal gas. He sells a book on the internet, Peaceful Pill eHandbook Essentials, with instructions on committing suicide.

How did Nitschke feel about Smith’s execution? He opposed it, saying “The US justice system is sick. There is a distorted rule of law that shows no humanity."

Nitschke says that his right-to-die movement is the only organisation that has expertise in killing people with nitrogen. He was “disappointed that the Alabama Corrections Department had not learned from the extensive trial and error experience of the right to die movement.”

He complains that the executioners should have used a hood rather than a mask. “The risks that Alabama Corrections are taking in their new execution protocol could have been avoided if they had bothered to research the issue in more detail,” he says.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

But the big problem from Nitschke’s point of view is that it is terrible publicity for his organisation, Exit International. It has “set the movement back at least 20 years,” he says.

Smith’s case has been widely publicised and members of Exit are worried. Nitschke says: “Elderly people around the world are now asking whether they should reconsider their plan to use this method and asking where the truth lies. They want to know why the Alabama ‘experiment’ has prompted such negative reaction?”  

Isn’t there a lesson in this for jurisdictions which have legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia? If we are horrified at capital punishment for a crime committed decades ago, shouldn’t we be equally distressed by the fact that an Australian entrepreneur is travelling around the world promoting death for the crime of being old and lonely?   

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator 

Image: Philip Nitschke with Kenneth Smith. Photo from Exit International. 


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.