Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Death of Kenneth Eugene Smith Through the Eyes of an Informed Anesthesiologits.

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science & Society, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

On January 25, 2024, nitrogen gas was used to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith, a death row inmate in Alabama. Of course, the following is disturbing but this issue cannot be avoided under current conditions.

Anesthesiologist Joel Zivot of the Emory School of Medicine applied "to attend as a member of the media but the Alabama Department of Corrections granted only permission for him to be "near the prison, but without a mechanism of direct observation...I decided not to attend. Instead, I learned the details of Smith's death by the accounting of the few who were there".

Dr. Zivot wrote a First Opinion piece for STAT, January 29, 2024 which is linked below.

There are two competing stories about Smith's death: "humane and effective" and "cruel and tortuous". Some points Zivot makes follow.

--"Executions are highly curated events."  Witnesses who view the "execution must surrender their cellphones, paper, pen, and watch. They can use only memory to record what they see."

--"Alabama shared facts of the preamble" to the execution in great detail" --what he had for breakfast and the final meal.

--The execution was described by the Alabama Department of Corrections as "textbook" However, this was the first death in which nitrogen gas was used, causing Zivot to wonder: Where might I find such a textbook?"

--The claim has been made that the gas "would lead to unconsciousness in seconds, and death would rapidly follow. Witnesses observed something else: convulsions and minutes of open eyes. "And that's as much as we know. The viewing curtain was closed to witnesses before the official time of death. Reports vary from 22 minutes to 28 minutes following administration of the gas. Zitov writes that the witness reports appear to be accurate. This leads Zitov to claim that the intent was to torture." Zitov reminds us that his execution was punishment not torture.

--I'd forgotten that this was the second attempt by the state to execute him and the second time Alabama had failed because they didn't have a piece of  necessary equipment.

--Zitov makes some comments on what he knows about death, us he knows a great deal about death based on research with death row inmates who are injected. It turns out that it is by "drowning in your own blood."

--In describing Smith's death, Zitov draws our attention to Smith's death, writing that it "was devoid of anything that could be confused with a scientific investigation apart from the petty theft of a few scientific-sounding words." He reminds us that it is "only by watching can we know that an execution is or is not cruel."

--Smith was given two choices: death by injection or gas. About this Zitov write "In asking for nitrogen, Smith hoped to die by a method that would not be torture. He did not get his wish."

I think this thoughtful essay is "must reading."
Dr. Zivot's profile.

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