The Gas Chamber Is Making A Comeback

March 25th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

This week, lawmakers in Oklahoma moved one step closer to allowing nitrogen gas as an alternative method of capital punishment in lieu of lethal injection. 

On Tuesday, Oklahoma's Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 in favor of a House bill that would let the state use nitrogen fumes––before resorting to the electric chair, and then a firing squad––to put inmates to death when lethal injection drugs are not available or the practice is outlawed. Condemned inmates would be made to inhale the gas, which in turn causes hypoxia––or a lack of oxygen in the blood––and eventually, death.

"Execution via nitrogen hypoxia is practical, efficient and humane," Rep. Mike Christian (R), who authored the bill, said in a statement earlier this month. "I'm confident we have found a viable solution to fix our current execution process." 

"Besides the humane nature of this option, an added benefit is we will not see supply issues like we do with our current lethal injection setup. There is no way for death penalty opponents to restrict its supply," he continued. 

The legislation, which reports have noted passed without debate or testimony Tuesday, now moves on to the full Senate for a vote. 

But opponents have been vocal against what they see as a troubling, experimental fallback for an already inhumane practice, noting that no other state uses nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method.

"It's a fool's errand to even engage in this utterly bizarre process of searching out new ways to take people's lives against their will," Ryan Kiesel, executive director of Oklahoma's American Civil Liberties Union chapter told the Associated Press. "We would be experimenting on the condemned using a process that has been banned in many states for the euthanasia of animals," he added. 

Broader Shortages

The proposals come as an increasing number of pharmaceutical companies have halted production of lethal injection drugs as more people have begun opposing the practice. The shortages of the traditional drugs have officials scrambling to find sustainable execution methods.

Recently, Utah lawmakers voted to approve use of a firing squad for executions when the preferred lethal injection drugs aren't available within 30 days. This week, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed the legislation into law. Other states are also considering alternative methods with drug supplies runing low; Tennessee, for example, mandated the electric chair for when drugs are not available. 

The Oklahoma legislation also comes during a statewide stay on all lethal injections as the Supreme Court reviews whether the state's practices violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Last year, four inmates filed a lawsuit questioning the ability of the drug midazolam, which replaced the short-supply sedative in the traditional three-drug cocktail, to effectively sedate the condemned before the following two lethal drugs are injected. 

The suit followed the horrendously botched execution of Clayton Lockett last year. After 51 minutes of trying to place an IV, executioners eventually pushed a catheter straight through a vein in Lockett's groin, filling his tissue with the drugs instead of his bloodstream. Executioners closed the blinds and tried to call off the procedure as Lockett grimaced and writhed, but he eventually died of a heart attack. 

One of the four inmates to file suit, Charles Warner, was executed in January after Supreme Court justices voted down a stay on his execution. During the 18-minute procedure, Warner muttered "my body is on fire" and that "no one should go through this. I'm not afraid to die."