Oklahoma considering ‘efficient’ gas chambers for executions

AFP Photo / Dieter Nagl
Oklahoma lawmakers are pushing for the state to become the first in the nation to allow the use of nitrogen gas for the execution of death row prisoners.

Oklahoma state House Republican lawmakers will hold a hearing Wednesday on a bill to make death by “nitrogen hypoxia” a back-up method of execution. The state’s lethal injection formula is currently under review by the Supreme Court, which will determine whether it violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Under current law in Oklahoma – where lethal injection has been used since 1990 – if that method were to be found to be unconstitutional, the state would use the electric chair. A firing squad would be the third option. The new bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Christian, said he wants to eliminate electrocution as a back-up method in order to replace it with the gas chamber.

"You wouldn't need a medical doctor to do it. It's a lot more practical. It's efficient," Rep. Mike Christian, an Oklahoma City Republican, told the Associated Press.

Christian said that unlike traditional gas chambers that used drugs like cyanide, which cause a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood, breathing nitrogen would be painless because it leads to hypoxia – a gradual lack of oxygen in the blood, similar to what can happen to pilots at high altitudes.

Execution via “nitrogen hypoxia” is a method advanced in the National Law Review paper in 2005 by Stuart A. Creque, seemingly based on the fatal outcomes of two chemical accidents involving nitrogen. There do not seem to be any instances of nitrogen being used in executions to date.

READ MORE:Supreme Court to review Oklahoma execution procedure after botched lethal injection

The US Supreme Court is reviewing Oklahoma’s use of lethal injection, following several botched executions and a lawsuit filed by three death row inmates arguing that the method violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The inmates said the sedative midazolam, often used as part of a three-drug injection cocktail, is not strong enough to make inmates completely unconscious and protect them from pain.

The lawsuit was originally filed by four inmates, but one of the men – Charles Warner – was executed on January 15 after justices voted 5-4 to allow the lethal injection to proceed.

During that execution, Warner declared that his “body is one fire” and that “no one should go through this” before he died. The lethal injection process took about 18 minutes to complete – longer than is typical for this type of procedure – though he did not show physical signs of pain. Some witnesses said that the back of Warner’s neck twitched for about seven minutes before he died.

Warner was originally convicted of raping and murdering an infant in 1997.

During lethal injection, a shot is given to put the inmate to sleep, while another is administered to paralyze them. A final dose stops the heart. A prisoner might feel an intense amount of pain if the injection is administered incorrectly; the sensation has been likened to having jet fuel pumped into one’s chest, all while restrained to a gurney.

READ MORE:‘My body is on fire’: Oklahoma proceeds with executions using controversial method

In a 2005 report, researchers from the University of Miami said the levels of sedatives in 21 out of 49 prisoners executed by lethal injection were low enough in dose that the condemned could have been conscious to the very end.

Since 1976, just over 1,200 inmates have been executed by lethal injection. A total of 158 others have been electrocuted, 11 put to death in a gas chamber, three hanged, and three killed by firing squad, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a capital punishment monitoring agency.

The lethal injection process in the United States underwent a fundamental change in 2011, when drug company Hospira stopped making sodium thiopental, due to concerns about its widespread use in executions. It was the lone US manufacturer of the drug.

The drug was an anesthetic that would render a person unconscious before the other substances that would cause death were administered. Texas changed its process to encompass a single drug, while other states scrambled to develop new lethal injection protocols.

Rev. Adam Leathers, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told the Associated Press that he wishes lawmakers would abolish the death penalty altogether, rather than spend time developing more efficient ways to kill people.

"It's evidence of what a ludicrous idea this is to begin with," Leathers said. "We're scrambling around trying to figure out humane ways to kill someone. There isn't a right way to do the wrong thing."