The first death row inmate in the United States could be executed with nitrogen on Friday. Kenneth Eugene Smith was convicted in 1996 of murder-for-hire. Smith was actually scheduled to be executed in 2022. But at that time, prison staff were unable to insert the cannula into his arm. After several hours on the execution table, he was returned to his cell and, according to his lawyers, is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following the experience. Now follows the new experiment with nitrogen.

Several court requests from Smith’s lawyers have so far failed. They had argued that he was becoming a test candidate for a type of execution that had never been tried before. An Amnesty International expert even compared the case to torture. In the so-called nitrogen hypoxia, nitrogen is supplied via a face mask and death occurs due to a lack of oxygen.

The number of death sentences carried out in the USA has been falling for years. Since its reintroduction in 1976, a total of 1,582 sentences have been carried out, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), an independent information center on the death penalty. Last year there were 24 executions, this year Kenneth Eugene Smith could be the first.

A majority of the American population, 55 percent, supports the death penalty for convicted murderers, according to a poll by the Gallup polling institute. But criticism of the death penalty is increasing; after all, a person’s life is at stake. More and more states suspended enforcement, sometimes for years.

There are always cases like Smith’s where the execution goes wrong. Others sentenced to death are subsequently found innocent. There are also very practical problems: a lack of toxic drugs, a lack of specialist staff – and money.

Costs vary by state. But the death penalty is significantly more expensive than a life sentence. On average, the DPIC estimates around $20 million per death sentence. In Florida, according to Amnesty International, it is even more than $50 million.

According to DPIC, several factors lead to higher costs for the state and country as soon as a defendant is threatened with the death penalty:

This makes the costs add up. In California, a 2008 Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice report found that the justice system, including the death penalty, costs about $137 million each year. Without the death penalty, the commission estimates only $11.5 million per year.

In Maryland, a 2008 Urban Institute study showed taxpayers pay about $37 million for an execution. The nationwide costs are about eight times higher per case if the prosecutor seeks the death penalty for the defendant or defendants.

And in Louisiana, the last death penalty was carried out in 2010. Still, last year alone the state paid $7.7 million in court and attorney fees for cases involving the death penalty.

In addition, enforcement of the defendants is being pushed further and further back. An analysis by the Pew Research Institute shows that an average of 22 years pass between the verdict and the execution of the death penalty. In 1984 there were still six years. This leads to even higher costs.

The majority of those sentenced to death today do not die through an official execution. The DPIC states: “Most defendants who are sentenced to death essentially spend their lives in prison. However, at a very high cost because the death penalty was involved in the process.”

Of the 50 states in the USA, 27 allow the death penalty. It is currently suspended in five of them, also because of the governors’ moral concerns. Gavin Newsom of California said in 2019: “As governor, I will not oversee the execution of any person. […] Our death penalty system has been a disaster by any measure.”

Quellen:  Amnesty International, Death Penalty Information Center, “Louisiana Illuminator”, AP News, Gallup, Urban Institute, Pew Institute, Governor Gavin Newsom.