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Politics and Government

Experimental Executions: State Lawmakers Consider Untested Gas Asphyxiation

The death chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Oklahoma Department of Corrections
The death chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

After Oklahoma’s troubled execution last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review the state’s lethal injection procedures and postpone all scheduled executions

Amid the legal scrutiny and difficulty in obtaining drugs for future lethal injections, some state lawmakers are discussing a new, completely experimental method of execution.

Experimental Executions

Right now Oklahoma has three ways to execute someone. If lethal injections don't work, the electric chair and a firing squad are backups. But those have proven to be unreliable and gruesome.

Back in September during an interim study, Republican Representative Mike Christian said he found a logical answer to the death penalty question.

“The solution that we've come up with is nitrogen hypoxia. One, it's practical. Two, it's efficient. Three, it's humane. And it's innovative,” Christian says.

But this method, which replaces a person’s available oxygen with nitrogen through a mask or gas chamber, is new, and that concerns Richard Dieter from the Death Penalty Information Center.

“The problem is it's never been tried,” Dieter says. “We've never put anybody in a chamber with just nitrogen gas, with a glass view, and watched what happens.”

What little we do know about nitrogen hypoxia comes from suicide research. The method is even recommended as a more pleasant form of suicide for those suffering from terminal illness. 

“These are referred to medically as deaths by asphyxiation, but essentially it's suffocation,” says Matthew Howard, a professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied inert gas asphyxiation.

While there’s no way to know for sure what this feels like, Howard says there’s no evidence of suffering.

“Although it can be disconcerting for people to watch because there can be some moaning. There can be some gasping, and other kinds of involuntary movements of limbs and things, which can be distressing to the people that are watching,” he says.

But Howard says there could be a big difference between suicide and death row, where many inmates may be less eager to die.

“It probably would be effective, but I think it would be a hands-on, unpleasant way to put someone to death,” Howard says. “You'd probably have to sedate them. You'd have to restrain them. You might have to hold them down while the gas was taking effect.”

A 'Mask' or 'Bag'

Earlier this month, Representative Christian’s introduced a bill to the House Judiciary Committee. It passed without debate, and a similar version authored by Republican Senator Anthony Sykes passed in the Senate. Neither Christian nor Sykes responded to multiple requests for interviews.

But in a recent committee hearing, there were a handful of questions the Oklahoma City lawmaker had to answer, like when Democrat Representative Richard Morrissette asked about the $350,000 cost for building a gas chamber.

“I think there was some misinformation when I said we'd have to construct some kind of death chamber,” Christian says.

“But no, they can actually use the same room that's currently in existence.  Some of the folks we’re talking to that are actually working on a delivery system said it'd be some kind of mask or some kind of bag that would be placed around the subject's face or around the head.”

First Time for Everything

During the committee hearing, Christian argued the procedure’s experimental nature wasn’t a reason to avoid its adoption.

“We would be the first state if we did execute someone, but there was a point where somebody was executed by lethal injection for the first time too.”

Richard Dieter from the Death Penalty Information Center urges caution. He says using an untried gas is eerily similar to using an untried drug like the state did last year during Clayton Lockett’s execution.

“It's an experiment, and maybe it won't go well. That's part of the problem Oklahoma got into with introducing a new drug. They didn't really know the potency that was needed, how long it would take, and that's why the Supreme Court is looking into what Oklahoma has done,” Dieter says.

It’s early in the 2015 legislative session, and the bill could be tweaked before reaching the floor. The current language proposes nitrogen hypoxia as a backup, but last fall, Representative Christian suggested it could become the primary method this year.

Richard Dieter says it’s not that easy though. When the Supreme Court decided to review the state’s execution methods, justices said the state’s last experiment could’ve resulted in cruel and unusual punishment, and it’s unclear whether using nitrogen gas could fall into that same category.  

Listen to the House Judiciary Committee discuss HB 1879, which considers the use of nitrogen hypoxia for state executions. The hearing took place February 10, 2015.


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