I’ve written a couple of times about how lethal injection, which once seemed to be the most humane way to execute people, can go badly wrong (see here, and here, for instance). Alabama has had two such execution attempts that failed miserably because they couldn’t find a suitable vein, and punctured the condemned man like a pincushion. Eventually they just stopped the executions, and I believe that both have been canceled. (In one case, though, Alabama sought another execution date. That request was withdrawn.)
While it sounds good, lethal injection isn’t perfect, and to me the most humane way would be to inject the person with pentobarbital, which causes anesthesia and then death. It’s the stuff used to euthanize sick animals. But no pharmaceutical company will supply the purified stuff for executions, and this is also a problem with the usual three-cocktail mixture used in human executions (sodium thiopental used as anesthesia; then pancuronium bromide to paralyze voluntary muscles; and finally potassium chloride to finish off the prisoner by causing cardiac arrest). These three chemicals are obtained on the gray market, often from independent “compounders”, and could, if impure, do a painful job of killing someone.
My recommended solution, of course, is to eliminate the death penalty completely, which all “first world” countries save Japan have done. It’s cheaper to keep an American prisoner in jail for life than to kill him (there are expensive appeals and so forth), execution hasn’t proven to be a deterrent, it’s usually barbaric and conducted in secrecy (which of course you wouldn’t want if you wanted to deter people), and it’s purely retributive. My own solution is that of Norway: a maximum sentence of 21 years no matter what the crime, and then a review every five years to see if the prisoner is “reformed” and safe to release. Really bad actors, like mass murderer Anders Breivik, will never see freedom under this system. I see no reason to keep someone in jail until they die if they are, to all observers, reformed. Breivik and Charles Manson would never have passed that test.
But instead of abolishing lethal injection, the article shows that Alabama is considering using technical innovation to keep killing: in this case, suffocation with nitrogen.
The article first recounts the grisly botched executions of the state, and then describes what Alabama is proposing:
The state appears to be preparing to premiere a new kind of execution by lethal gas. In the gas chambers of old, little cells were filled with poison that eventually destroyed the organs of the trapped prisoners, resulting in death. Now Alabama proposes to use nitrogen gas to replace enough oxygen to kill via hypoxia, an untested method once imagined in a National Review article and made manifest in a plastic gas mask.
Since 1921, when gas was first used (in a botched execution in Nevada), 600 people have been executed with hydrogen cyanide gas in chambers like the one below, New Mexico’s gas chamber, used just once until it was replaced by lethal injection. Gas is now outlawed because it violates the Supreme Court’s dictum that “cruel and unusual punishments” be forbidden.
Cyanide wasn’t humane. Here’s a bit from Wikipedia:
At the September 2, 1983, execution of Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi, officials cleared the viewing room after 8 minutes while Gray was still alive and gasping for air. The decision to clear the room while he was still alive was criticized by his attorney. In 2007, David Bruck, an attorney specializing in death penalty cases, said, “Jimmy Lee Gray died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans.”
During the April 6, 1992, execution of Donald Eugene Harding in Arizona, it took 11 minutes for death to occur. The prison warden stated that he would quit if required to conduct another gas chamber execution.
. . . and from the Atlantic article:
Though the chamber had promised instantaneous and painless death, the ugliness and risk of its application eventually made it the country’s shortest-lived method of execution, Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham University School of Law, told me. In plain view of witnesses, prisoners died screaming, convulsing, groaning, and coughing, their hands clawing at their restraints and their eyes bulging and their skin turning cyanic.
The last of them, Walter LaGrand, was killed in Arizona in 1999. Despite the length of time separating his death from Gee’s, he endured a similarly troubled execution: LaGrand, a German-born American who was convicted of murder, gagged and hacked and then died over the course of 18 minutes.
Now nitrogen may provide a more humane death, but it’s still death, and I oppose the procedure. But let’s hear about its history and how it’s supposed to be used:
Alabama has something slightly different in mind. Nitrogen hypoxia is the dream of Stuart Creque, a technology consultant and filmmaker who, in 1995, proposed the method in an article for National Review, in which he speculated optimistically about the ease and comfort of gas-induced death. After hearing about the potential of nitrogen hypoxia as a lethal agent in a BBC documentary, Oklahoma State Representative Mike Christian brought the idea before Oklahoma’s legislature in 2014 as an alternative to lethal injection. Oklahoma passed a law permitting the use of nitrogen hypoxia as a backup method of execution in the event that lethal injections could no longer be carried out. Mississippi passed similar legislation in 2017; Alabama followed in 2018. With Missouri, California, Wyoming, and Arizona (which have older lethal-gas statutes still on the books), these three nitrogen-curious newcomers make up the handful of governments that could begin attempting to execute people with lethal gas at any time. (Alabama Department of Corrections did not immediately reply to a request to comment for this article.)
The proposal is to use a large plastic mask that covers the condemned person’s face, is strapped to the head, and then nitrogen gas would be pumped into the mask via tubing. As I said, I don’t know how this would go, but presumably they’d do tests on animals before they used it on humans (another inhumane proposal). As The Atlantic points out, stored nitrogen is dangerous (though I’m not overly worried about that); what’s more of an impediment is that gas companies appear unwilling to supply nitrogen for execution.
Oklahoma Watch (there are two other states considering nitrogen execution) floats other possible problems, including when to put the mask on, how to assure it’s sealed, and how to prevent the condemned person from struggling. It all sounds good, but so did lethal injection:
Death from nitrogen comes not from what’s in the gas, but what isn’t. Nitrogen is air without oxygen, yet a person dying from it doesn’t feel as if they are suffocating. They still breathe in and expel carbon dioxide but may begin to feel lightheaded, fatigued and have impaired judgment.
Several breaths can render a person unconscious, with death following in four to five minutes, according to Copeland’s report. That’s based on experiences of people who have used nitrogen for suicides.
What could go wrong? We won’t know until it’s tried for real, and I doubt that any state wants to go first. (Read in the article about the first horrible attempt to use hydrogen cyanide.)
At this point, Alabama isn’t ready to use execution by nitrogen, and so it’s back to the three-drug cocktail that may look humane, but doesn’t always feel humane, nor does it always work well.
The obvious solution is to abolish executions. The Supreme Court hasn’t, but 18 states have. The new conservative court won’t, I think, take up this issue, but the rest of the 32 states could. It’s time to stop butchering people for butchering other people. In the future, state execution will be seen as immoral and barbaric, just as we see drawing and quartering now.