After Alabama pioneers nitrogen gas execution, Ohio may be poised to follow

Republican state Attorney General Dave Yost scheduled a news conference Tuesday to discuss “next steps to kickstart” Ohio’s capital punishment system.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost speaks at an Ohio Republican Party event, Nov. 6, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost speaks at an Ohio Republican Party event, Nov. 6, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio.(File Photo | AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio: Ohio politicians may be poised to consider whether the state might break its unofficial moratorium on the death penalty by following Alabama in using nitrogen gas to execute inmates.

Ohio hasn’t executed anyone since 2018. In 2020, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine declared lethal injection “no longer an option,” citing a federal judge’s ruling that the protocol could cause inmates “severe pain and needless suffering.”

Republican state Attorney General Dave Yost scheduled a news conference Tuesday to discuss “next steps to kickstart” Ohio’s capital punishment system. He has expressed support for the nitrogen gas method used for the first time in Alabama last week, when convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith, 58, was put to death with nitrogen gas administered through a face mask to deprive him of oxygen.

The execution took about 22 minutes from the time between the opening and closing of curtains to the viewing room. Smith seemed to remain conscious for several minutes. For at least two minutes, he appeared to shake and writhe on the gurney, sometimes pulling against the restraints.

State officials in Alabama said the process was humane and effective, while critics called it cruel and experimental.

“Perhaps nitrogen — widely available and easy to manufacture — can break the impasse of unavailability of drugs for lethal injection,” Yost wrote on X on Friday, the day after Alabama executed Smith. “Death row inmates are in greater danger of dying of old age than their sentence.”

Republican state Reps. Brian Stewart and Phil Plummer and the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, Lou Tobin, were slated to join Yost at his news conference Tuesday. State Rep. Josh Williams, of Toledo, told Cleveland.com the GOP lawmakers are preparing legislation that would allow using nitrogen gas as a backup if lethal injection drugs aren’t available.

Ohio’s last execution was on July 18, 2018, when Robert Van Hook was put to death by lethal injection for killing a man he met in a Cincinnati bar in 1985. His was the 56th execution since 1999.

The state has since faced challenges finding the chemicals for lethal injection.

Certain lawmakers of both political parties have consistently pushed bills over the years to eliminate the state’s death penalty, including a measure introduced this session.

It’s an option that DeWine — who helped write the state’s current law, enacted in 1981 — has stopped short of supporting.

As time has passed, however, the governor has questioned the death penalty’s value because of the long delays that elapse between crime and punishment. He told The Associated Press during a year-end interview last month that he was not prepared to announce whether he would support an outright repeal.

“I did make it clear a few years ago that we could not carry out executions in the state of Ohio under the current law,” he said. “There’s been really no movement in the state Legislature to come up with a different way of execution.” He said that would have been “the logical thing,” if support were there for continuing the practice.

Ohio has 118 men and one woman on death row, according to the most recent state report.

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