Execution by nitrogen is not “humane” & won’t ensure a “peaceful” death


This week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill joining Oklahoma and Mississippi in allowing officials to execute prisoners using nitrogen gas, a new, untested, untried method of killing women and men – or, as Oklahoma State Representative Mike Christian refers to them, “these beasts.”

Let that sink in for a moment, if you will. . . .

Mr. Christian’s new law makes Oklahoma one of three states that may soon execute prisoners by placing a mask over their faces and watching them suffocate and die. This method, officials assure us, is a “humane” procedure that will result in a “peaceful” death.

The problem with such assurances is that these officials have no idea what death by nitrogen gas asphyxiation is like. As the Marshall Project analysis states, “Executing prisoners by nitrogen ‘hypoxia,’ which deprives the body of oxygen, has never been tried by any state or nation in the history of the world.” So we are, apparently, to take Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Alabama at their word. Really?

Oklahoma has been at the center of controversy over its use of the death penalty since 2014, when condemned inmate Clayton Lockett took 43 minutes to die in a botched execution that the prison warden said in court filings was “a bloody mess.”

In January 2015, they followed the ‘bloody mess’ by executing Charles Warner with the wrong drug, one that was not part of the state’s lethal injection protocol. Then, eight months later, just hours before Richard Glossip (whose conviction is still being contested and has caused international controversy) was scheduled to be executed, the governor called it off when it was discovered the state was again preparing to use the wrong drug.

Mississippi stopped using its gas chamber partly because of the 1983 execution of Jimmy Lee Gray, who “died banging his head against a steel pole in the gas chamber while reporters counted his moans,” per his attorney, Dennis Balske.

And just last month in Alabama, a cancer-ridden Doyle Lee Hamm was tortured for two-and-a-half hours in a failed attempt to kill him. His attorney, Bernard Harcourt, reports Hamm was “lying there praying and hoping that they would succeed because of the pain,” before officials finally gave up and left him “bruised, punctured, and limping from the attempted execution.”

Understand, these states are not offering nitrogen gas as an alternative because it’s more humane. No, they’d happily continue using lethal injection, the last “painless, humane” method they liked. But they can no longer procure the lethal drugs necessary for the procedure because pharmaceutical companies will no longer allow their drugs to be used to kill people.

As the Marshall Project reports, “I was calling all around the world, to the back streets of the Indian subcontinent, to procure drugs,” Joe M. Allbaugh, Oklahoma’s corrections director, said in his announcement of the switch to nitrogen gas. Necessity, it seems, is also the mother of evil invention.

Death Penalty Focus vehemently opposes this latest attempt to sanctify killing. Abolitionists don’t oppose hanging, the firing squad, the gas chamber, the electric chair, or lethal injection because they hurt. We oppose them because they kill. Using nitrogen gas in a cold, premeditated, ritualistic manner to forcibly end the life of a helpless human being cannot be disguised as a humane act, no matter what mask Alabama, Oklahoma, or Mississippi chooses to put on it.

The United States must join the rest of the western world and recognize that executing its citizens is a barbaric act that brutalizes us all.

There are better ways for civilized societies to demonstrate humanity and dignify human life.

Mike Farrell, actor and activist, is the president of Death Penalty Focus.

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