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Alabamians Do Not Seem to Have Read the Eighth Amendment

Alabama, possibly followed by other Southern states, may be about to deliver the Democrats yet another campaign issue to run on, namely the death penalty.

The forms of execution historically used in the U.S.—hanging, firing squad, electric chair—are rather violent. Indeed, the latter method was specifically developed because the former two were viewed as inhumane by many voters. That was over 100 years ago, and given how much tolerance Americans back then had for violence, it says something that nooses and firing squads made them squeamish. Needless to say, the chair was not the panacea that Thomas Edison claimed it was when he developed and marketed it.

In view of the problems with the "classic" forms of execution, the states that still impose capital punishment on a regular basis have substantially moved in the direction of death by lethal injection. Ostensibly, this is more humane. Doesn't always work out that way, but those folks who are in the best position to speak the truth are... well, no longer with us, let's say. Anyhow, since the Supreme Court said, in 1976, that capital punishment was once again legal, 1,392 people have been put to death by lethal injection. By contrast, 163 have been electrocuted, 11 have been gassed, 3 have been hanged and 3 have died by firing squad.

There is one logistical problem with lethal injection, however, that has emerged in the last 10 years or so. The companies that make the necessary chemicals to carry out such executions are not enthused to be de facto merchants of death. And so, they have either stopped making the chemicals, or else have stopped selling them to capital-punishment states. There was some effort to hoard a supply, at least in some states, but those stockpiles are either running out or have passed their expiration date.

One possible way to interpret all of this is that maybe the time for imposing the death penalty has passed, and that the penalty might not have a place in the 21st century. That is not the conclusion that Alabama authorities have reached, however. They want to keep sending people to their deaths, but in a "humane" way that is not likely to raise the ire of the Supreme Court. So, they have decided to experiment with a new method that's never been used anywhere else in the world. Meet nitrogen hypoxia.

The theory here is that an inmate will be masked, and will be given pure nitrogen to breathe. This will "quickly" replace the oxygen in their system (5-10 minutes is the best guess, with the emphasis on "guess"), and death will ensue. If this sounds like suffocating someone to death, then you have the general idea. There is zero research to back up the viability or humaneness of the technique, and even the term "nitrogen hypoxia" is made-up and does not appear in any medical textbook.

If this were not enough, Alabama has chosen, as its guinea pig first subject, a man named Kenneth Smith. When he was convicted, 11 jurors thought a life sentence was called for, but the judge overruled them and imposed death. And Smith has already been "executed" once, but it was a lethal injection that didn't work. In other words, if you're going to find a sympathetic victim among death row inmates, he's that person.

There are still some months before Smith's execution date, and anti-death-penalty lawyers have already filed cases claiming cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. If those cases fail, however, then Alabama will move forward, while Oklahoma and Mississippi—which have also approved the use of this method—will take it as proof of concept and will likely schedule their own nitrogen hypoxia executions. If so, we foresee more than a few Democrats making use of this as they run for Congress, statewide office, local office, etc. (Z)

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