A US state is set to bring in a grisly new method of execution that starves Death Row inmates of oxygen, but there are major flaws in the ill-conceived plan.

Alabama wants prisoners facing the death penalty to breathe pure nitrogen – and has a convict lined up to test the controversial procedure.

Attorney General Steve Marshall has asked the state Supreme Court to allow death row inmate Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, to trial it.

The convicted killer, jailed in 1996 for his part in a murder-for-hire plot, requested to be put to death by nitrogen hypoxia.

He was due to be executed in November last year, but had opposed receiving the lethal injection and petitioned to be granted the gruesome alternative instead.

The method is authorised in three states, including Oklahoma and Mississippi – but has not yet been used.


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Death row inmates like Smith would be forced to breathe pure nitrogen, depriving them of oxygen until they die.

Although nitrogen makes up 78 per cent of the air we inhale, it is harmless when combined with oxygen.

Prisoners are reportedly likely to be restrained and possibly sedated, before being gassed and falling unconscious.

The use of the method has sparked fiery debates, with many likening it to human experimentation – although supporters suggest it would be painless.

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Many questions remain as to how Alabama would carry out the procedure – and overcome a host of possible challenges.

Public and legal pressure is expected, but experts have suggested that numerous problems could arise in the room.

In theory, the use of nitrogen would not involve medical professionals or prison staff – unless something goes awry, such as the gas leaking.

This then puts anyone who enters the area at risk of inhalation as although nitrogen dissipates quickly in the air, close proximity can kill.

The risks suggest an inmate may have to sport a tight-fitting mask over their face to ensure the procedure's success.

But it remains unclear when this would be placed on them or what other restraints may be used – and how much some death row prisoners would resist.

It is unclear what would happen if the inmate held their breath or if the mask was not secured enough.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, told Oklahoma Watch: "How do you ensure that the nitrogen won’t leak out or that oxygen won’t leak in?

"Those are all the types of things that they will have to address. It’s not like a medical procedure with a patient who’s cooperating."

Those strapped to the bed may face a long death if the nitrogen gas is diluted – delaying the loss of consciousness and prolonging their final moments.

A 2014 report on nitrogen executions, led by East Central University professor Michael Copeland, suggested only a hood and a tank of gas would be needed to carry out the killing.

Other unresolved details include the sourcing and storage of nitrogen – which is colourless, odourless and extremely potent.

Those throwing their weight behind the method say it the gas is much easier to come by rather than complex drugs used for lethal injections.

Alabama and other states have struggled to find pharmaceutical firms willing to supply them with medicines for use in executions.

Oklahoma's Attorney General Mike Hunter has dubbed nitrogen hypoxia the "safest, best and most effective method available."

But it remains to be seen whether Smith's plea to be put to death by the problematic process will be granted.

Alabama's Attorney General Marshall said it was a "travesty" that the killer had been "able to avoid his death sentence for 35 years."

He was one of two men convicted in the 1988 murder-for-hire slaying of a preacher’s wife, Elizabeth Sennett.

However, anti-death penalty group The Equal Justice Initiative said the state is "in no position to experiment" with execution methods.

It said Alabama has a history of "failed and flawed executions and execution attempts" and "experimenting with a never before used method is a terrible idea."

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Although the state has been working on the nitrogen hypoxia scheme for several years, little details have been disclosed.

Corrections Commissioner John Hamm told reporters last month that a protocol was nearly complete.

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