After botched lethal injections, Alabama plans to kill prisoners with nitrogen

January 3, 2023 • 11:30 am

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 That request was withdrawn.)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.

57 thoughts on “After botched lethal injections, Alabama plans to kill prisoners with nitrogen

  1. The people who come up with these ideas and carry them out seem incompetent to me. It’s hard to imagine that an accomplished, well-trained scientist or medical practitioner would participate in such a barbaric practice, leaving only lessers to do the deed.

  2. Basic ethics question. Do I use my knowledge to help the state kill someone relatively painlessly or do I refrain and let the state kill someone with protracted agony? The answer is in on that experiment.

    There is too much comparison with cyanide as nitrogen acts quite differently.

    In fact suicide recomendations suggest helium which acts as does nitrogen in excluding oxygen. Presumably there is little pain if it is the buildup of carbon dioxide which causes shortness of breath. [Although balloon helium is typically 80-85% helium.]

    While state executions are one thing, I would like to know there is a painless way out if I contract a painful terminal illness.

    The first space shuttle casualties:
    1981: Five technicians are asphyxiated while setting up a ground test for the space shuttle Columbia …Two of them die.

    Believing the conditions inside Columbia to be safe, they entered not wearing air packs. Because nitrogen is both odorless and colorless, the five men lost consciousness before realizing anything was amiss.

    1. It’s the reason no one is “allowed” to carry liquid nitrogen in elevators. If it spills, even partly, it can go unnoticed, and can just push out the oxygen, and no one will feel distressed by the respiratory drive, which is driven by buildup of CO2/Carbonic acid, not by hypoxemia. They just get groggy, and loopy, and pass out, and if not rescued, they can die. Inert gas asphyxiation, as you note, is a method recommended in “Final Exit” by Derek Humphrey, for people with terminal illnesses who live in states in which physician assisted suicide is illegal, and by all accounts that I’ve read (which admittedly are few) it’s pretty benign.

      1. The quotation marks about allowed are quite appropriate. Where I used to work, metal loops were eventually attached to the elevator door frames so presumably chains could be attached to prevent access when LN2 dewars were moved. But the loops were all that ever happened.
        And thanks for the “Final Exit” reference. I could not recall name or author.

    2. Some botched executions have been be blamed on efforts to make effective drugs unavailable to US states that carry out the death penalty. Its opponents can then argue that the less successful executions that result mandate the abolition of the death penalty. (A similar issue arises with the claim that the death penalty is too expensive, because there is no inherent reason why people sentenced to death should get such elaborate appeals that can last decades before their execution.)

      1. Yes, yes, you want people to be sentenced to death. I get it, since it’s the second comment that expresses that sentiment. And it’s YOUR judgment that there shouldn’t be elaborate appeals before killing someone. “No inherent reason”? How about KILLING SOMEONE WITHOUT GIVING THEM EVERY CHANCE IS BARBARIC?

  3. Execution by lethal injection, electric chair & hanging is cruel/barbaric. Execution by firing squad or just one shooter is merciful.

    1. It’s great that you feel shooting is merciful, compared to lethal injection – you can relax in the knowledge that you’re a true humanitarian. Although I have to say that your definition of ‘merciful’ is different to mine. Rather than merciful, you strike me as archaic; like a proud progressive citizen of the middle ages. One who preferred short drop strangulation hanging to burning at the stake. Not barbaric at all….

      1. My dear fellow, I hope you feel better for writing that. I’m against capital punishment, and will make the following observations:
        1. The 1983 cyanide execution – the condemned man banging his head was likely unconscious and seizing. Absolutely not pretty but at least he didn’t know about it.
        2. Nitogen hypoxia might be done in two ways. Sudden inhalation of pure nitrogen will cause almost instant unconsciousness, with no sensation of breathlessness reported by those who have accidentally wandered into an oxygen-free atmosphere and survived (by being pulled out immediately by others). Slow onset hypoxia is so insidious that we still deliberately train certain pilots in controlled chambers to try to get them to recognise it happening. Such things are likely frowned on these days, but I recall a physiology practical in which we wore large rubber bags and a rebreather mask. Filled with air, the rebreather contents would gradually change, with less oxygen and more CO2. We sat on stools next to the benches in the Haldane Lab, and had to copy some sentences into a notebook with a pencil. I woke up on the floor, having fallen off the stool. When able, I looked at my notebook, where the handwriting had gradually become larger and then looked like the effort of a three year old with a crayon, finally the pencil line trailed off the corner of the page. I had been aware of nothing: happily copying one moment and on the floor the next. But in between there had been maybe a minute of rapidly reducing function that I had not recognised at the time, and was certainly painless and not distressing. Hope I didn’t lose too many brain cells.
        3. I was horrified to discover when hanging was suspended (I bet someone felt that word choice clever at the time) in the UK in 1965 that it was still practiced. Seven year old me thought it was part of the gruesome past. I now know that properly calculated long-drop hanging is probably the most humane end one can inflict, and if you Americans insist on killing each other you should look at it. In fact, I’d recommend anyone read Albert Pierrepoint’s autobiography Executioner Pierrepoint. You will learn how to do the calculation so that the condemned does not strangle (as in the bungled American Nuremberg executions), nor have his head torn off (videSaddam Hussein). Albert was an interesting chap, coming to terms with what was practically an inherited position by sacralizing his role and treating the condemned with extraordinary kindness and respect. His belief was in speed to minimise fear and suffering, and from opening the condemned cell door to death took him forty seconds on an average day. How many people today will understand the inside joke in the name of his retirement public house?
        4. In Pierrepoint’s day, a murder trial usually took place about a month after arrest, and execution, if the mandatory appeal failed, about two weeks after sentencing. Such a swift and certain punishment probably did have a deterrent effect, and while other factors will have contributed, murder was relatively rare in the UK in the first half of the 20th century. No doubt it also led to more executions of the wrong person, too, but at least there were no DNA tests to cause embarrassment.

        1. Interesting summary. What about the guillotine? It was invented as a humane form of execution. Is long-drop hanging better? If so, why?

          Any truth to the rumour that a severed head remains conscious for a couple of minutes, with hearing and vision still working, before the brain runs out of oxygen?

          1. The guillotine is messy as someone here said, but just as quick and requires no skill. I know of the experiments with a freshly guillotined head opening its eyes when the name is called. But consider this: if you have ever fainted you know how you black out with low BP. Here we have zero BP. Maybe reflexive eye opening for a few seconds, but consciousness? I’d judge that impossible except perhaps as a few seconds of that fainting feeling followed by total unconsciousness.

            1. My N = 1 experience supports your skepticism about conscious severed heads, Christopher. A patient who went into cardiac arrest in front of me while on an ECG monitor remained conscious for only a few seconds after ventricular fibrillation appeared. I’m guessing two or three: his eyes were already rolling back when I looked back down at him after glancing up at the monitor because its alarm was chiming. He remembered not a thing, including the ~five seconds of CPR and the defibrillation shock, fortunately. Prior to that, he was fully alert, and, although in the middle of having a heart attack, had a normal cardiac rhythm and a reasonable blood pressure.

              This is the only occasion where I could personally observe a time interval between known total cessation of blood flow and loss of consciousness. Coronary and ER nurses and EMTs have likely seen dozens. This is, after all, why we invented coronary care units.

              The important thing here is that my patient fully lost consciousness in seconds. It wasn’t just his higher cortical function like ability to converse that went out almost like a light. He was gone. Even those lower brain centres that govern wakefulness (consciousness, not self-consciousness if you want to divide up the brain), stopped working.

              1. I”ve had that experience too. A man having an MI arrested while I and a nurse were in the room, and we grabbed the defribillator paddles off the monitor cart and shocked him within seconds of VF starting. He woke up almost immediately and asked in a small voice “Oh, what happened?” He had no idea.
                We must assume that the IV KCl does the same thing in a lethal injection. Not that it alters my stance against the whole business.

  4. There are two reasons why individuals are against capital punishment: 1. Considered to be immoral; 2. Depending on how it gets carried out

      1. Indeed. The case of Timothy Evans who was executed for the crimes committed by his neighbour, serial killer John Christie, played a large part in persuading the UK to do away with capital punishment. Infamously, Christie was the chief prosecution witness at the trial that resulted in Evans’ guilty verdict and subsequent execution.

        1. Ditto the Stephen Truscott case in Canada. He was sentenced to be hanged in 1959 as a 14-year-old but his sentence was commuted. An appeal for a new trial was denied in 1967 on the grounds that it was an open-and-shut case. He served 10 years before being paroled.

          In 2007, re-evaluation of forensic evidence led an appeal court to find reasonable doubt in the conviction and it was overturned. Important here is that no new evidence was brought. Unlike in many wrongful convictions since then, there was no crime-scene DNA available that might have conclusively exonerated him using modern techniques.

          Mr. Truscott is still alive.

      2. That should not be a problem in the US, since a death sentence offers convicts far better chances of having their conviction overthrown than a life sentence.

        The fact that some people will get executed despite being innocent is a consequence of the trade-off between false positives and false negatives in the justice system. A hundred guilty prisoners freed cause far more suffering than an innocent one imprisoned endures.

        1. Yes, I get that you favor the death penalty. As far as your tradeoff is concerned, you just made that up. The tradeoff is better to let a hundred guilty prisoners go free than convict an innocent person.

        2. I’m sure I’ve heard reasoning like that before…

          Oh yes, that was it – NKVD head butcher Nikolai Yezhov when justifying the 800,000 killed in the Red Terror.

          You make a great point, map.

        3. It is shocking to see such a sentiment as our tradition has always been we would prefer to see a hundred guilty go free than one innocent person punished, especially with the ultimate punishment of the death penalty.

          The act of a state killing persons for whatever reason seems barbaric and in most cases worse, because carefully planned and executed, than the crime which was usually committed by a person who is mentally unstable. What’s more, nothing could be worse, at least in my view, than a state killing an innocent person. The insouciant tossing about of limiting appeals on this thread and amongst our citizenry is particularly troubling. Especially since we have seen hundreds of people exculpated after the use of DNA evidence was introduced in the legal system.

        4. Mdap, a fuller utilitarian argument than yours requires that you consider the effect on the larger law-abiding populace if it saw that the justice system capriciously sought to convict a few innocent people in order to minimize the number of guilty who walked free. Our centuries-old Anglo-Saxon tradition (not universal in the world, mind you) of doing exactly the reverse is necessary for people to be willing to submit themselves to justice and not fight to the death against efforts by police to bring them before it. Only if you have a reasonable certainty that you will be acquitted (albeit at the cost of your life savings) if you are indeed innocent can you be expected to trust your fate to the courts.

          When we convict someone wrongfully we regard it as a terrible error, not simply as a pawn lost to the game of trade-offs.

      1. Detection – of the crime, and of you as perpetrator of that crime – is the essential precursor of deterrence.
        But it’s also expensive, so it is terribly unpopular with low-tax rhetoricians. Who, as I understand it, comprise the whole American political class.

  5. 78% of air is N2. 21% is O2. The “can’t breath” sensation comes from too much CO2 in one’s breathing.

    Nitrogen would be imperceptible. You would just wink out. I am against capital punishment; but, assuming they can do this method competently, it seems like it could be the most humane method.

    I used to make a lot of wine; and I have close friends who are professional winemakers. Asphyxiation is a workplace hazard for them. They use compressed nitrogen (I used to as well), argon, and the fermentation generates a lot of CO2 — enough to do the job. The CO2 warns you, you feel like you can’t breath and run to safety. Nitrogen and argon are silent killers. Precautions have to be taken when handling these gases.

    My father was a navigator/bombardier in B-24s in WWII. Twice, he had a oxygen mask coupling come loose. The first time, he noticed himself getting groggy and reconnected it. The second time, he knew nothing; he just woke up with one of the crew mates bending over him, after reconnecting the mask. He would have died if not for the alert crew mate. After that flight, he through that mask in the garbage after rendering it unusable. There were many ways to die in those airplanes over Germany!

    1. Nitrogen and argon are silent killers.

      It’s a recognised danger in large welding installations too. We were asked (in our capacity as gas analysis specialists) to report on detection/ alarm possibilities after a reported fatality in some distant part of the world – the safety alert wasn’t very clear exactly what happened, but the Safety Officer wanted us to comment on ALARP measures.

  6. Let’s remember that there are lots of murders in prison. I think a reasonably strong argument can be made that the death penalty is justified in some cases to keep irredeemables like Manson and Breivik from ever killing again.

    If Breivik kills someone in prison, who is responsible?

    1. It is not so hard to keep them from killing someone in prison, surely? If a prisoner does kill someone in prison then responsibility for failing to keep them under sufficient and suitable control would be ascertained and dealt with in the same way as any other professional failure leading to loss of life.

    2. If Breivik kills someone in prison, who is responsible?

      The management of the Norwegian prison system, and possibly identifiable prison officers if there were failures to follow procedures that contributed to the murder.
      Isn’t that obvious?
      The Norwegian prison system is rather different to the American one. They are quite upset about their ~10% recidivism rate. They view every returning prisoner as a profound failure on their (the prison system and staff) behalf for failing to help the offender to become a successful member of society. What’s the return rate for American prisoners? 80%+? 90%+?

  7. Lethal injection of one or several drugs was thought by lay-people who had had pets put down but who had never provided medical care to drug addicts to be a painless way to execute prisoners. It resembles surgical anesthesia. It often achieves the purpose and the cocktail has been adapted for medical euthanasia in Canada. It sounds good. What the enthusiasts of medicalizing executions didn’t seem to have realized was that long-standing drug addicts who are occasionally found among the prison population have destroyed all the veins that are big enough to be used for medical purposes. They resort to tiny “non-medical” veins in the tongue, the wrist, and the penis for injections, as long as those last.

    The scolding tales of “incompetent” attempts to execute someone are re-played every day in Emergency Departments where even highly skilled phlebotomists simply cannot hit a vein in a drug addict after dozens of attempts, even to draw blood for testing, much less to give live-saving treatment. Therapeutically, we know there is more than one way to Open Sesame but for executions, the method is rigidly prescribed by the state. If the sentence is death by lethal injection, lethal injection it must be. The warden can’t simply pull out his pistol and tell the frustrated tech to stand back.

    To Norman at #1, physicians may not participate in executions, not even to supervise the humane-ness of the attempts or call them off, except to declare that death has occurred. I don’t know if medically qualified people advise the justice system on how to design execution techniques–in my view they ought not to and so I won’t here, either–or whether the authorities just set a high-school graduate to work on Google to look this stuff up. Killing people is not a medical act. It’s not that complicated until you try to make it fit someone’s definition of “humane”. Which often just means not messy or noisy or distressing to witnesses.

    On the other hand, engineering and technical types may sincerely believe in the death penalty and can legitimately apply their skills to doing it under the state’s direction.

    1. …physicians may not participate in executions, not even to supervise the humane-ness of the attempts or call them off, except to declare that death has occurred.

      According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, 35 of the 38 death penalty states explicitly allow physician participation in executions, and 17 require it: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. To protect participating physicians from license challenges for violating ethics codes, states commonly provide legal immunity and promise anonymity.

      According to the Journal of Medical Licensure and Discipline, no doctor in the United States has ever actually been disciplined by a medical board for participation in a lethal injection execution.

      1. The state may allow it but ethics do not. You can tell this by the need for the state to provide immunity and anonymity. What I wrote stands.

        1. Well, there is something to be said for believing that one’s code of ethics is absolute and binding on everyone else on earth, but one could be forgiven for understanding your statement that “physicians may not participate in executions, not even to supervise the humane-ness of the attempts or call them off” to be an assertion that physicians who do participate will have their licenses revoked or something of the kind.

          As for the ethics of it, there does seem to be room for disagreement, as with the ethics of abortion.

          You can tell this by the need for the state to provide immunity and anonymity

          The need for legal immunity is thanks to a robust and active legal profession, and/or a state medical board with ethics at odds with those of the legislature.

      2. When that NEJM article was written (2006) there were 38 death penalty states. According to Wikipedia that appears to be down to 26 currently. The other article was written in 2009 and there may have been developments there as well.

        1. Just so we’re clear, Sean. in the 17 states that “require[d]” physician participation in executions (Gawande 2006), it means that the state won’t let an execution proceed unless a physician is present. It does not mean that the state can conscript or otherwise compel a doctor to participate if none volunteer.

          If a doctor was outed for having participated in an execution, any member of the public could make a complaint to the state medical self-regulator who would be required to investigate as to whether an ethical breach constituting professional misconduct had occurred. Relevant evidence in the United States would include the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics. The regulator could suspend or revoke a licence with a finding of guilt. Doctors who do executions recognize that they are pariahs even if they find justification in trying to prevent suffering.

          If refusal by doctors (and nurses) to help out with lethal injection makes it impossible for executions to proceed, so be it.

          1. The regulator could suspend or revoke a licence with a finding of guilt.

            This is true within the following parameters:

            To protect participating physicians from license challenges for violating ethics codes, states commonly provide legal immunity and promise anonymity.


            …no doctor in the United States has ever actually been disciplined by a medical board for participation in a lethal injection execution.

          2. Furthermore, physicians themselves do not seem to be on board with all the ethics pronouncements of medical organizations. A study titled Physicians’ Attitudes About Involvement in Lethal Injection for Capital Punishment reached the following conclusions:

            We surveyed physicians about how acceptable it was for physicians to engage in 8 actions disallowed by the AMA and 4 allowed actions involving lethal injection. … Four hundred eighty-two physicians (51%) returned questionnaires. Eighty percent indicated that at least 1 of the disallowed actions was acceptable, 53% indicated that 5 or more were acceptable, and 34% approved all 8 disallowed actions. The percentage of respondents approving of disallowed actions varied from 43% for injecting lethal drugs to 74% for determining when death occurred. All 4 allowed actions were deemed acceptable by the majority of respondents.

    2. I used to go straight to the femoral vein (easy for an amateur, the more civilized would use the internal jugular) in those circumstances.

      1. The addict may have been there before you. In the Gawande paper referred to upthread, a doctor who did supervise an execution tells of how he intervened because the prison tech was unable to find a vein. He told Dr. Gawande he accessed the subclavian vein (successfully) just because that was his usual practice. The anecdote doesn’t say if anyone tried for a femoral vein first.

        You would think a thrombosed femoral vein in the drug-abuse setting would cause venous gangrene of the lower limb but collaterals and recanalization are amazing things.

        In one of the “botched” execution attempts described a few days ago it appears that a lay witness was describing someone’s attempt to put in an internal jugular line, again perhaps because the femoral veins were gone. Or the condemned man was morbidly obese.

        I don’t think it’s belabouring the point to reiterate that executions done with drugs are not more humane just because they superficially resemble medical practice which has humanity as its goal. And even actual medical practice can be a major ordeal for these challenging patients.

    3. They resort to tiny “non-medical” veins in the tongue, the wrist, and the penis for injections,

      Breasts too, particularly if lactating. (According to a junkie I met in my youth.)

      The warden can’t simply pull out his pistol

      Security in American prisons is so bad that the warden needs to sign out a weapon for going to the execution chamber to meet a prisoner who is already restrained? Wow, that says a lot.

      I don’t know if medically qualified people advise the justice system on how to design execution techniques

      Probably they do … but I bet those particular medics aren’t in practice afterwards, and probably not before. Slight problems of with the empathy system.

  8. I know of at least one case where a chemical operator dropped down the manway of a tank car and did not realize that the car had been purged with nitrogen prior to chemical loading. When his buddy realized what was happening he jumped in, without breathing apparatus, to try and save the first operator. Both died. The company found that safety protocols were not followed, to no one’s surprise.

    1. The company found that safety protocols were not followed, to no one’s surprise.

      SOP for “confined space entry” (which includes tank entry – it can also mean restricted crawl-ways, that sort of thing) starts with a written risk assessment by the (named) team leader for the job. At minimum, two triple-gas alarm meters (sounding on low oxygen, high flammable gasses, toxic gas), one for the entry controller, one carried by the working person. Rigging for a harness for the entry person, so they can be pulled out by the entry controller.
      It’s a major undertaking. At least, we treat it so – other counties may find lives to be cheaper.

      When his buddy realized what was happening he jumped in, without breathing apparatus, to try and save the first operator. Both died

      Depressingly normal.
      When I had to present on toxic gas safety (H2S for us ; your industry may have different killers) for crew who haven’t worked in BA before, I try to personalise it by finding a recent local (to them, at home, not to me, or at work) multiple fatality like that to drive the “think before acting” message home. I always succeed in finding a relevant case, and most often it is a family event – father and son, or two brothers. The classic is farmer and son clearing a blockage in the pig shit storage tank – lots of “sour gas” ; common operation ; working with the most casual (or no) supervision. My third H2S course (or was it 4th?) had a father and two sons as the example – just a few months earlier.
      Depressingly predictable.
      Also repetitive. Depressingly repetitive.

  9. Gas is now outlawed because it violates the Supreme Court’s dictum that “cruel and unusual punishments” be forbidden.

    Pedantic point: cruel and unusual punishments are forbidden by the eighth amendment to the US Constitution. I assume you mean that the gas chamber was decided to be cruel and unusual by the Supreme Court.

    Less pedantic point: I don’t understand why lethal injection and the electric chair are not also deemed to be cruel and unusual, at least not judging by the descriptions of them that I have read.

    On the other hand, nitrogen asphyxiation seems to be the least cruel option given that the state has decided to definitely kill somebody. I saw the BBC documentary that Mike Christian referred to. In it, Michael Portillo reviewed a number of ways of executing people in order to find the most humane. He even subjected himself to nitrogen asphyxiation (not beyond the point of no return!) to try to get some idea of what it would feel like.

    The other thing that stuck in my mind from the documentary was Portillo’s interview with some sort of conservative politician from one of the Southern states who stated that he saw the torture that the current methods of executing people as a positive. All the better if a murderer died in excruciating agony, as far as he was concerned. I’ve got to say I found that attitude barbaric. It’s harks back to less enlightened times when the pain inflicted was the whole point and the death was merely a byproduct. These inhuman bastards sure know how to cherry pick amendments.

  10. This is something that mystifies me. When the time comes to euthanize the old and suffering dog we are assured that there is no pain and that it is a gentle process. According to one source, “The main drugs used to put a dog down are sodium pentobarbital used alone or in conjunction with phenytoin sodium.” Furthermore, these drugs are available in numerous brand names, such as Sleepaway and Euthasol.

    Nevertheless, the claim is made that the majority of those injected with pentobarbital suffer flash pulmonary edema, which can lead to a sensation akin to drowning and “‘extreme pain, terror, and panic.’” However, according to Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor (a staunch opponent of the death penalty), “For several years, Tennessee has provided for the execution of capital prisoners via a single drug called pentobarbital. …Pentobarbital, a barbiturate, does not carry the risks described above; unlike midazolam (a benzodiazepine), pentobarbital is widely conceded to be able to render a person fully insensate.” So I agree that the use of pentobarbital should be a slam dunk to those in the execution business.

    Manufacturers of pentobarbital require their distributors to promise not to sell it to states for the purpose of capital punishment. But with the amount in circulation simply for the purpose of euthanizing animals it would seem that even the most inept state procurer should not have that much difficulty locating five grams now and then. According to the Supreme Court:

    It is our responsibility “to ensure that method-of-execution challenges to lawfully issued sentences are resolved fairly and expeditiously,” so that “the question of capital punishment” can remain with “the people and their representatives, not the courts, to resolve.”

  11. I say just kill the bastards. More people need to be sentenced to death, and more babies need to be aborted.

      1. So this is a post about the death penalty and Missouri is going to execute someone. That’s what.

        Now, the fact that the person had decided to become a trans woman while in prison is news, apparently, and the first one in the state to be executed, again, is apparently newsworthy. A skeptic could argue s/he made the transition in order to play on some sort of sympathy, but in a very red state with a very red governor, that wouldn’t make sense. However the news did spend quite a bit of time talking about the violent childhood trauma, the transition, and the relationship with a fellow prisoner who transitioned while in prison, so I don’t know. Make of it what you will.

  12. A problem is we burn so much fuel arguing about the death penalty (quite a few die of old age waiting) while ignoring our (I think over)use of solitary confinement.
    D.A., J.D.

  13. Japan, where the death penalty is applied (albeit very occasionally) is a weird case if you look it up. A global study of death penalties is very interesting, and telling. As a former defense attorney, I’m against it of course.

    NYC (& FL)

    1. Of course, Portaloo’s political career was long over by then. (I was “up for Portillo” – the grannies were literally dancing on the tables at the Trades Council bar.) Obviously he’d got nothing to lose by rejoining the human race – and he’s swerved to being quite a decent presenter since then.

  14. what’s more of an impediment is that gas companies appear unwilling to supply nitrogen for execution.

    Not really a problem – you can buy “nitrogen generators” as a stock item in the lab equipment and food processing equipment industries.
    You don’t need to go to 99.999% Nitrogen. Anything below about 10% oxygen will work, and almost as quickly as 1% oxygen or 0.1% oxygen.

    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

    They probably will do this. But they don’t need to – the necessary experimental work was done, in large part by self-experimentation, in the 1930s and 40s, in experiments to understand human gas physiology. This was instituted by the construction industry to better understand “caisson disease” – a form of decompression sickness encountered in constructing things like bridge foundations below water level. And thereby reduce the costs of injuring caisson workers. This work expanded to understanding the physiology of living with compressed gases, non-atmospheric gas mixtures, pure gases (where the limits of nitrogen and oxygen concentrations were determined, by experimentation and occasional collapse of the experimenters). And then, in response to the RAF’s need to do high altitude operations, they pumped out the high pressure chambers into low pressure chambers.
    This work also formed the basis for development of SCUBA (and other systems) decompression tables. But that was largely after the war – I think the Navy independently rediscovered the toxicity of oxygen at partial pressures above 1.7 atmospheres by the traditional method of killing squaddies. They were trying to develop manned bombs to destroy the Tirpitz, IIRC.
    It was the thick end of twenty years of research. All tightly documented. There’s no need to kill any more Guinea pigs (human or cavine … caviary … whatever the adjective for Guinea pigs is) repeating the experiments. Someone will repeat the experiments, but it’s needless.
    And who were the redoubtable experimenters behind this programme? JS Haldane and JBS Haldane, père et fils, the latter of whom you will probably recognise as one of the people who established the neo-Darwinian Synthesis and who learned an inordinate fondness for beetles direct from God. Less well known is that the back injuries that prompted his emigration to India were a consequence of an experiment to determine the partial pressure of oxygen that starts to induce convulsions in a human subject. The chamber operator went a couple of psi too high while he was breathing pure oxy and … uncontrollable spasms and a lifetime of torn back muscles before the “dive” companion (breathing chamber air) could get the mask off him.
    There is no need to repeat these experiments. “They” will do, because meaninglessly killing experimental subjects seems inevitable prior to killing humans. But the Haldanes have already done all the necessary suffering. As volunteers. Not even drawing hazard pay. Job done. Bring on the experimental sacrifices!

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