Alabama-Torture Outrage Muted and Unconscionably Insufficient

Photo: Equal Justice Initiative.

On January 25, Alabama tortured a man to death. It was a planned torture of a human being in the United States using nitrogen gas—the first time that execution method has ever been used.

A witness to this abomination, eyewitness reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, Martin Rooney, reported: “Smith was shaking violently with his eyes rolling in the back of his head.” Rooney also told the New York Times: “For four minutes he was gasping for air. He appeared to be conscious. He was convulsing, he was writhing, the gurney was shaking noticeably.” Rooney’s observations were echoed by another eyewitness, journalist Lee Hedgepeth; Hedgepeth said soon after the noxious nitrogen began its nasty mission: Smith “began thrashing against the straps, his whole body and head violently jerking back and forth for several minutes.” The Inquirer grimly cataloged too, in the aftermath: “Smith’s execution lasted roughly 22 minutes from the time the viewing room curtains opened and closed…[Smith’s] eyes were open as he gasped and convulsed. That was followed by five to seven minutes of heavy breathing.”

Despite patent and uncontradicted evidence Smith was tortured to death last month by Alabama, our legal, political, moral, and cultural leaders in the United States have failed to meet the moment. Their muted, unconscionably insufficient outrage over Smith’s torture will never be forgotten. This includes their unwillingness to condemn the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, who, beforehand, had claimed in court papers nitrogen-gassing is “the most painless and humane method of execution known to man.” The same is true for Alabama Corrections Commissioner John Hamm; continuing Alabama’s odious tradition of ducking and dodging accountability, Hamm said about Smith’s torture: “nothing was out of the ordinary of what we were expecting.”

“The reports of Kenneth Smith and his death last night obviously is very troubling. It is very troubling to us as an administration, it is very troubling to use here at the White House,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters—convincing no one. What Jean-Pierre’s statement did highlight, however, and, what Alabama’s foray into human experimentation resulting in Smith’s torture has thrust into the international spotlight is: Biden’s lie about trying to abolish the death penalty last time he campaigned—not just federally but in the states—and his inaction in this regard is unacceptable. Following Smith’s torment, The Associated Press reported: “several states are mulling following Alabama’s lead in using nitrogen gas to execute[.]”

On Human Rights Day, in 2008, then-President-elect Barack Obama said that “The United States was founded on the idea that all people[—even people condemned to death like Kenneth Smith was—]are endowed with inalienable rights, and that principle has allowed us to work to perfect our union at home while standing as a beacon of hope to the world. Today, that principle is embodied in Agreements Americans help forge—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Geneva Conventions, and treaties against torture and genocide—and it unites us with people from every country and culture. A year earlier, at a congressional hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, former Vice President Mike Pence said, “torture is illegal, torture is banned by various provisions of the law. I support that.”

Torture, and the abhorrence of good, moral people everywhere to it, has been, until now, a non-partisan issue. Former journalist Shepard Smith once expressed this surpassingly well on TV when he said: “We are America; we don’t torture! And the moment that is not the case, I want off the train!” Moreover, in his lengthy essay “The Devil Finds Work,” published in 1976, great American writer James Baldwin, whose writing helps battle the death penalty, wrote “the wretched of the earth” include those that “think nothing of torturing a man to death: these people are not to be taken seriously when they speak of the sanctity of human life, or the ‘conscience’ of the civilized world.”

In keeping with the best of what America promises other nations it is, why haven’t President Biden, Congress, and the judiciary expressed their outrage at Kenneth Smith’s torture yet?

On May 1, 1945, Louis Lochner reported for the Associated Press how the “Nazis Used Dachau Inmates as Guinea Pigs for Gas Tests,” not unlike how Smith was used at Holman Prison in Alabama—the night America took a step back in its ambition to be a beacon of hope and courage to the world, the night Smith writhed, rattled, gasped, convulsed, wretched and shook on the gurney (having been previously painfully poked and prodded during a prior botched lethal injection).

Lochner wrote: “There was evidence a section of the prison camp had been given over to scientific experimentation on human beings to study the effects of various types of gas[.]” He concluded: “It represents the last word in savagery, depravity, sadism, and inhumanity. Here human beings were experimented on as though they were guinea pigs[.]” Shortly before Lochner filed his report, 8 U.S. congressmen including Representative Albert Rains (D-AL), at the personal invitation of then General Eisenhower, visited the Nazi torture-camp at Buchenwald. Speaking for the delegation, Representative Gordon Canfield (R-NJ) said: “This is barbarism at its worst, and it is a bad commentary on civilization.”

Was the sickening spectacle of the dehumanization to which Kenneth Smith was subjected to—one which debased mankind by gassing a man to death for vengeance, in 2024, much different?

On April 9, 1945, the La Grande Observer in Oregon reported how a “New Nazi Atrocity Camp [Was] Found by U.S. Troops.” Pertinent to the nitrogen-torture of Kenneth Smith and a caution to us all—all Alabamians and other Americans, too—the Observer noted how Colonel Hayden Sears told “the German civilians who viewed the scenes without muttering a word, that they were to blame for the fiendish acts.” He said: “[This] was done by those that the German people chose to lead them and all are responsible.”

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.