On Thursday, Alabama prison officials plan to escort Kenneth Eugene Smith from his cell, strap a mask to his face and replace his breathing air with nitrogen gas. It would likely be the first execution of its kind anywhere in the world.
How did we get here? Around 2010, drug companies began halting the flow of their products to execution chambers. Prison officials turned to new suppliers and cocktails, but more public scrutiny of the method led to more horrific reports of prisoners suffering on the gurney, which in turn brought talk of alternatives. South Carolina even built a firing squad chamber.
Alabama officials have said the goal of "nitrogen hypoxia" is for the prisoner to quickly lose consciousness, but right now, Smith's lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to stop the execution, arguing that if something goes wrong, he might vomit, asphyxiate or be left in a persistent vegetative state.
Depending on what happens, other states could begin executing prisoners with nitrogen.
To understand the risks, I spoke with Dr. Jeffrey Keller, president of the American College of Correctional Physicians. After publication, emails came in from other people with relevant experience: A pediatric surgeon noted past cases in which nitrogen caused seizures. A lab researcher said he'd attempted to euthanize rats with nitrogen and they reacted with panic, "jumping like mad and clawing at everything in an attempt to escape." He came to believe the method was "too inhumane for laboratory animals." But another reader wrote that the execution method should be painful.
These reactions show just how much the death penalty tests our individual, core views of right and wrong, but also what we, as a society, are willing to condone.