Document shows Alabama gas execution will pose risk to witnesses Alabama plans to execute a prisoner using nitrogen gas. NPR obtained a Department of Corrections document showing the method may pose risks to others in the room and impede religious liberties.

Alabama's upcoming gas execution could harm witnesses and violate religious liberty

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Alabama plans to use nitrogen gas to execute a death row prisoner in January.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's the second time the state has tried to execute Kenneth Smith, and this method of execution has never been used in the United States. A document obtained by NPR has found that Alabama's Department of Corrections cannot guarantee the safety of witnesses during the execution.

INSKEEP: Our investigative reporter Chiara Eisner is in the studio to share more on this. Good morning.

CHIARA EISNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Welcome. Thanks for coming by. What have you learned?

EISNER: So I spoke with the spiritual adviser of Alabama death row prisoner Kenneth Smith. His name is Reverend Jeff Hood. Hood shared a document with me that was essentially a waiver from the Department of Corrections acknowledging that he could be in danger by being close to Smith when they administer the nitrogen gas.

INSKEEP: And he would be close to Smith during the actual execution as his spiritual adviser? He'd be standing right there? Is that right?

EISNER: He'd be standing right there. He'd be in the room.

INSKEEP: OK. So how would it be that he would be endangered by the execution itself?

EISNER: Smith will have a mask on, and that's how they're going to give him the gas. That mask could detach, and the gas could get to other people in the room that way. This document that he signed says that even if Smith's mask stays on, gas could still leak above Smith's head. So Hood had to agree to stay at least 3 feet away from the gas. But nitrogen gas is odorless and it's invisible, so experts told me that rule would be pretty hard to follow, and it could be difficult for anyone else in the room to even know they're being exposed. An anesthesiologist I spoke with, Dr. Joel Zivot, said people exposed to nitrogen gas like that could start to hyperventilate.

JOEL ZIVOT: And that severe hyperventilation, you know, can lead to a stroke. So there is some injury that could happen to you, you know, as just being in the proximity of that. It's all very concerning. They're not being realistic about what exactly is at stake here.

INSKEEP: And your reporting tells us Alabama knows this is a risk. That's why they're making Hood sign this waiver form. Is the spiritual adviser Reverend Hood OK with that?

EISNER: Well, he told me he signed the form under duress because it was the only way he felt he'd be allowed to be there with Smith and do his job. He's preparing for the worst. Here he is.

JEFF HOOD: When I first got in touch with Kenny, one of the first things that he asked me was, are you prepared to die to be my spiritual adviser? And it's something that I've definitely had to meditate and pray on and just cling to a real knowledge that greater love hath no one than this, than they who would give their life for their friend.

EISNER: He was quoting Scripture there. And there's also a question of whether this could violate the religious liberty of both men. Hood has been a minister during multiple other executions in Alabama and other states. And in those cases, he needed to be close to inmates to anoint them with oil and administer last rites. But he says that won't be possible here if he has to stay 3 feet away for safety reasons.

INSKEEP: What's Alabama saying?

EISNER: I asked them for comment. I haven't heard back from them yet. Two weeks ago, I tried to get this document directly from them, along with any others that workers might have signed, but the Department of Corrections responded then that it would be, quote, "detrimental to the public interest," and they did not release those forms to me. The agency does say on the form that they believe gas escaping would be highly unlikely, and there will be gas monitors in the room.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from the prisoner, Kenneth Smith?

EISNER: He called me from the prison in Alabama last week. And I should say the state has already tried to execute him once before by lethal injection. Last year, he was on the gurney for four hours as they tried to find a vein.

KENNETH SMITH: I'm still carrying the trauma from the last time. So everybody is telling me that I'm going to suffer. Well, I'm absolutely terrified.

EISNER: The execution is scheduled for January 25, and Reverend Hood is planning to be there regardless.

INSKEEP: NPR's Chiara Eisner, thanks so much.

EISNER: Thank you, Steve.

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