Death Penalty

In Oklahoma, Inmates Could Be Gassed to Death by a Substance Unfit to Kill Pets

The American Veterinary Medical Association states that nitrogen may be "distressing" for any animal other than birds.

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Nitrogen gas has never been used for state-sanctioned executions anywhere in the U.S., but that hasn't stopped Oklahoma officials from embracing it.

As the state struggled to find a solution to the nationwide shortage of phenobarbital, the poison used in lethal injections, officials came to see nitrogen gas an answer to this problem. Nitrogen is cheap and widely available, though few studies have been done to verify its effects.

In 2015, the state passed a law which made nitrogen hypoxia the state's primary execution method, should lethal injection be ruled unconstitutional or should the state run out of the necessary supplies. Last week, Attorney General Mike Hunter and Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh announced that Oklahoma will begin using nitrogen gas on its inmates once a formal execution procedure is finalized. While six states allow the use of gas as a secondary means of execution, Oklahoma is the first to make it the primary method.

"We can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait on the drugs," Hunter tells KOCO. Nitrogen "will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain, and requires no complex medical procedures."

Oklahoma has had a number of high-profile botched executions in the last decades.

In 2014, prisoner Clayton Lockett was injected with an untested cocktail of drugs after authorities were unable to locate his veins for 51 minutes. Lockett struggled to die for nearly an hour before his execution was complete. When the state executed Charles Warner in 2015, only after his death did the authorities announce that they had used the wrong combination drugs. (Warner's last words were "my body is on fire.") Shortly afterward, the state halted another execution because it also had the incorrect combination of drugs.

Michael Copeland, a criminal justice professor at East Central University whose research led to Oklahoma's 2015 bill, suggests the nitrogen offers a more peaceful alternative to the traditional injection.

"While lethal injections used to be an effective and humane way to execute someone, it's really not anymore," Copeland told Time in 2015. "The facts on the ground have changed. Now it's like an experiment every time. Here's some drugs and maybe we'll have a paramedic administer it and let's see what happens. Maybe this will kill 'em. It's kind of haphazard, and I think it's only going to get worse."

Supporters of the nitrogen method believe it's painless. As the subject breathes the gas, he dies of oxygen deprivation in a matter of minutes as nitrogen displaces the oxygen in his bloodstream. Unlike carbon monoxide* poisoning, in which the toxic build up of gas causes subjects to feel like they are suffocating, the subject would be unconscious before dying of oxygen deprivation. This process is called "nitrogen hypoxia."

Supporters who argue hypoxia is painless mostly cite accidental deaths as proof of their claim, pointing to passed out pilots, scuba divers, and others who have experienced levels of oxygen deprivation as evidence of its safety. When Copeland presented his case for nitrogen gas to the Oklahoma House Judiciary committee, his presentation included YouTube videos of people passing out from inhaling too much helium—an inert gas that may behave like nitrogen in the bloodstream.

But the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests nitrogen should not be used on animals other than birds, stating that it has "distressing" effects on mammals. Nitrogen hypoxia has caused "seizure like behavior" in rats, mice, and mink; they breath rapidly before dying, suggesting stress. Similarly, the World Society for the Protection of Animals states that nitrogen should not be used on animals if other alternatives are available; it argues that death may occur before loss of consciousness even when high concentrations of nitrogen are administered.

"This method has never been used before and is experimental," Dale Baich, a federal public defender who is challenging the state's lethal injection protocol, tells KOCO. "How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state's recent history reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes in executions?"

Getting executed is substantially different than inhaling too much helium. Prisoners could hold their breath or resist the process if they aren't sedated. And as Nitrogen has never been used to execute people before, there is no way of knowing how it will affect the inmates. If this substance has been shown to cause rats and mice stress when they died, why experiment on human lives? Nitrogen may make things easier for the prisons, but that doesn't mean it will make dying less horrible for prisoners.

CORRECTION: This sentence initially identified the wrong gas.

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  1. Good on Reason for going all in against the death penalty.

    Can we have an article now discussing our insane abortion laws that allow the procedure to occur days before delivery and the barbarism involved in that procedure? No?

    That’s fair, abortion is a conflicted natural right. Can we see an article about how government funded abortion in Europe has led to genocide against those with disabilities? No?

    Ok, can we at least see an article agreeing that at the very least Planned Parenthood shouldn’t be federally funded? No?

    Yeah, your position makes less sense than pro-lifers who support the death penalty but oppose abortion

    1. Sadly, there’s only that one anti-abortion person. I’m sorry to say I’m forgetting her name right now.

      1. Stephanie Slade?

        1. That sounds right. She’s the only weirdo (I.E. Catholic) on the damned heathen Reason staff.

          1. No Mormons or Amish?

            1. Well, Ed is Amish, but sadly he doesn’t write here after last week due to his Rumspringa ending.

      2. Stephanie Slade?

    2. Good on Reason for going all in against the death penalty.

      I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that pro-lifers are so stupid they’re also illiterate.

    3. Maybe because it’s not exactly maximal freedom to force women to give birth against their will.

      What would you have government force you to shit out against your will?

      1. So babies and their rights are like shit?

        1. More like a watermelon, so I’m told.

      2. That’s really just an over simplification. The act that causes pregnancy is sexual intercourse. 99.9% of the time sex is consensual. So no one is requiring someone to give birth against their will. They are just saying that you can’t kill a baby growing inside of you as a result of your choice to have sex. Most people, who are honest with themselves, are ok with abortion very early on in pregnancy. But, unlike you apparently, I can see the side of those who are against it completely.

  2. Unlike carbon dioxide poisoning, in which the toxic build up of gas causes subjects to feel like they are suffocating, the subject would be unconscious before dying of oxygen deprivation. This process is called “nitrogen hypoxia.”

    As someone who has gassed pet rats to death by carbon dioxide you release a little gas first to get them to fall asleep, then you turn it up to full to kill them. That way they don’t feel like they are suffocating while they are still conscious. Can’t that same technique work with humans.

    A tarp, a Remington 3600, and a 180 grain .30-06 round to the brainstem.

    1. So shoot them just a little first to make them comfortable before going for the kill shot?

    2. The story was amended to say carbon monoxide. I am curious though. If CO causes subjects to feel they are suffocating, how do you explain all of the accidental deaths it causes?

  3. So make death penalty drugs easier to obtain? Oh, wait, I forgot the whole reason States are having issues is because the death penalty is unfashionable. Making those harder to obtain means the States will search for replacements who may or may not be as ‘humane’.

    Of course, I tend to be more on the side that says ‘don’t kill them, because that judgment can’t be reversed later’ but if we’re totally honest our justice system is mostly a revenge system that’s been turned into some bastard child where it’s believed that people can be taught ‘goodthink’ instead of their ‘badthink’ which, if we’re honest, doesn’t really work.

    True justice reform would mean getting rid of victimless thought crimes, but hey that’s a bridge too far I guess. Lets waste ink talking about cases where the perpetrator is as unsympathetic as possible!

    1. There is so much wrong with the criminal justice system that worrying about the death penalty seems like wasted energy.

      1. Poor use of time, perhaps, but an important issue in terms of the ultimate punishment a citizen can merit. I subscribe to the notion that it’s better to let a hundred guilty men free than to execute one innocent man, but I acknowledge there are other viewpoints out there with their own perfectly valid moral unpinning.

      2. “Crime is so bad I’m not going to bother locking my door”.

        Problems that look too overwhelming to tackle is no reason not to take tangible action where it is possible to do so.

        There is so much wrong with the criminal justice system, and much of it is simply too big and too entrenched to expect to be able to change something right here right now. But getting rid of the death penalty is within the realm of possibility.

        1. “Problems that look too overwhelming to tackle is no reason not to take tangible action where it is possible to do so.”

          Yeah, no. I have a life and a family, and I don’t really care to use my precious time to wage war against something I don’t really find very onerous.

          “But getting rid of the death penalty is within the realm of possibility.”

          Crusade away. But let me make it clear, I won’t be joining you, and douchily chastising me won’t make me.

          1. I have a life and a family, and I don’t really care to use my precious time to wage war against something I don’t really find very onerous.

            That time is clearly better spent commenting here.

            1. BTW, I don’t think you have any moral obligation to fight the death penalty. I don’t think most people here do anything more than say what they think when the subject comes up.

          2. Sorry, don’t see how I was being douchy or chastising. Just pointing out that there are options other than throwing up hands in futility.

            But in this comment I will douchily point out…

            and I don’t really care to use my precious time to wage war against something I don’t really find very onerous.

            The state murdering people in your name with your money, in what you admit is a badly flawed system, doesn’t bother you because it’s not directly *onerous* to you? Uh, ok.

            1. The state murdering the wrong people in your name with your money, in what you admit is a badly flawed system, doesn’t bother you because it’s not directly *onerous* to you? Uh, ok.

              You can think the state should be murdering people and still have moral problems both with murdering innocent people *and* with failing to murder guilty people.

        2. Problems that look too overwhelming to tackle is no reason not to take tangible action where it is possible to do so.

          I would agree from both sides of the issue. The case that always comes to my mind in this regard is Debra Evans. She filed a restraining order for domestic violence against her ex-boyfriend, Laverne Ward. Ward, Jaqueline Williams, and Fedell Caffey entered her apartment and offered her $2000 for her unborn baby. She refused. They shot her. They then stabbed her 9-yr. old daughter to death. Because they wanted the baby, they didn’t kill Debra. So, after shooting her, they proceeded to cut the infant from her womb. They took the 2 other Evans children (Jordan 19 mos. and Joshua 8 yrs.) to a friend’s house for the night. The next day, they realized that Joshua was sufficiently aware to be a witness (naming them to their friend) and they poisoned him, choked him, and finally slit his throat. Williams had been faking a pregnancy for months and their plan was to keep the infant and the now-born child. Police caught up to them when Ward called another ex-girlfriend and threatened to do the same to her.

          Gov. George Ryan, himself now a felon, commuted their sentences as the job of sifting through the 160ish death row inmates and granting specific clemency was too burdensome for him. IL has since banned executions and the taxpayers now get to support these three individuals (and all their appeals), guilty beyond any doubt, for the foreseeable future.

          1. I remember this case very well and wouldn’t shed a tear if these animals were executed. On the other hand you gotta understand that Chicago police had a long and documented history of extracting confessions by torture and convictions through perjury, planted evidence etc.
            This guy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jon_Burge got famous but for the CPD framing and torturing people was, and some suspect still is, business as usual. We’ll never know how many innocent people Illinois executed but 13 on death row were exonerated when DNA testing became available. Ryan’s moratorium and later commutations were a response to the fact that there could be many more innocent people on death row who might not have the benefit of DNA evidence available for testing. As an Illinois taxpayer I’d rather pay to house these criminals than empower the state to kill innocent people.
            A little more history.
            https://www.truthinjustice.org/dphistory-IL.htm

    2. So make death penalty drugs easier to obtain?
      How? By requiring drug makers to sell to states for the purpose of execution? Because it’s vendors choosing to not sell that’s making it hard.

      1. If the state wants to do so, it could make the drugs itself. Of course, they won’t and I’m fine with that.

        However, if the drug makers are to blame for making the ‘more humane’ execution drugs impossible to obtain ( not really the case, but lets assume it is) than I guess we already know who to blame for less humane executions.

        British thoughts on the subject…

        Two of the drugs, pentobarbital and sodium thiopental, are used in the vast majority of executions in the United States, where the death penalty is still commonplace for serious crimes.

        The UK unilaterally restricted the export of death penalty drugs to the United States in 2010 under the direction of the Business Secretary Vince Cable.

        The European Union followed suit at the end of 2011, putting the poisons on a list of controlled exports that could be used as part of “capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

        Curious that only E.U. drug makers are selling it so I suspect there’s more to the story when it comes to ‘alternatives’, especially given the 2015 publishing date, but one can’t deny that governments are sticking their nose there and it’s not even always our own nor through the standard legislative process.

        1. So your answer to “how” is either “create a state-run compounding pharmacy, which won’t stop at making execution drugs” (you know, actual state-control of industry), or “pressure foreign governments to change their laws”?

          1. Is it state or federal control of housing for the state of pay contractors to build section 8 housing? Note that I’m not in favor of these solutions, but your logic doesn’t look very strong here from a non-libertarian point of view.

            With the amount of times any state uses these drugs it would honestly not be difficult for one tiny lab to do nothing but this and sit on their ass 99.5% of the time while collecting a government paycheck.

            Again, not my preferred outcome but let us not pretend there aren’t plenty of these types of jobs already. I included the interesting tidbit from 2015 because it seemed applicable to the situation since it’s literally the same drug being discussed here.

      2. Some governments have banned the export of drugs used for executions.

      3. I assume Oklahoma confiscates far more heroin than it would take to wipe out their death row.

          1. Give them 10 times that much. 50. People rarely OD on it because they’re not trying to, not because it doesn’t work.

  4. Adrianna Waller didn’t have any last words. Thanks to Charles Warner, her skull, jaw and ribs were fractured. Her liver was lacerated, her spleen and lungs were bruised. So really I don’t give a damn if his body felt like it was on fire. A shame it wasn’t really on fire.

    Stephanie Neiman was 19 when Clayton Lockett shot her with a shotgun then buried her alive. Oh boo hoo, he struggled for an hour.

  5. Requiring a method of execution that is utterly free of “stress” seems to be moving the goalposts far away from “cruel”.

    1. Not just free of stress, free of stress in rodents with the implication being throughout the animal kingdom.

      1. Men have curious views when it comes to measuring mice.

  6. We can’t have baby rapists and other such vermin feeling any stress.

    1. I don’t know why I have to keep telling you this. The Bill of Rights protects us from the government. We are at minimal risk for being too lax on child rapers.

      1. Hanging rapists was considered constitutional when it was written. Nothing cruel or unusual about hanging a criminal by the neck until dead.

    2. Baby rapists doesn’t sound like much of a threat. Maybe to their teddy bears.

  7. This is absolutely wrong. You either misread the linked source, or whatever source article you read to interpret the source material drew incorrect results. Diving animals (including rodents) can directly sense oxygen levels in the air they breathe, and react adversely to a high N2/low O2 environment. Most mammals, including pigs, cannot sense low O2 levels, and will remain in a high H2 environment until the lose consciousness without any adverse reaction (from your source).

    According to U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

    … in humans, “breathing an oxygen deficient atmosphere can have serious and immediate effects, including unconsciousness after only one or two breaths. The exposed person has no warning and cannot sense that the oxygen level is too low.”

    From Rebreather Physiology Review:

    In scuba diving rebreather accidents, there is often little sensation but euphoria?however, a slow decrease in oxygen breathing gas content has effects which are quite variable.

    I would suggest retracting this article until you can read the wikipedia article, and most importantly, follow the links to the original sources. Relying on veterinary euthanasia articles for a human execution methods report will lead to false conclusions.

    1. I would suggest retracting this article until you can read the wikipedia article, and most importantly, follow the links to the original sources. Relying on veterinary euthanasia articles for a human execution methods report will lead to false conclusions.

      Agreed!

    2. For instance, the linked source source states:

      ACCEPTABLE WITH CONDITIONS
      Shooting using a free bullet
      An accurate shot to the animal’s head will result in immediate destruction of the brain and loss of consciousness, followed by deathh (Carding, 1977).

      Unless you are arguing that is an acceptable method, according to your sources?

  8. The American Veterinary Medical Association states that nitrogen may be “distressing” for any animal other than birds.

    Hypoxia resulting from exposure to Ar or N2 gas mixtures is acceptable with conditions for euthanasia of chickens and turkeys. Likewise, hypoxia resulting from Ar or N2-CO2 gasmixtures is acceptable with conditions for euthanasia of pigs, provided animals can be directly placed into a < 2% O2 atmosphere and exposure times > 7 minutes are used.

    Fuck off Reason.

  9. Your interns need better research skills. Human suffocation reflex is caused by elevated carbon dioxide in the blood. A near zero oxygen environment allows the expulsion of excess CO2 while quickly causing unconsciousness.

  10. If you can’t just give this up in light of the fact that suppliers don’t want to support the death machine, you might be a bloodthirsty psychopath.

    And when ever one of these agitators for more state killin’ ever loses control and perpetrates said psychopathy on other people, he might be grateful for the death penalty being gone.

    1. Beyond that is the weird cognitive dissonance of us wanting to kill people, but do so in such a way that doesn’t upset us. There had been increased evidence that lethal injection would paralyze, but leave the inmate still feeling the pain of his death. This was deemed acceptable by many, and so it becomes clear that basically the goal is to not upset the onlookers.

      1. Absolutely. Things were more honest, and probably less painful, when we had public beheadings.

  11. Wouldn’t the Joker be willing to sell some of his deadly gas to Oklahoma?

  12. I’m told that Oklahoma was the first place to use lethal injection.

    They’ve always been the trendsetter when it comes to killing people.

    In a few years, all the cool states will be using nitrogen.

    1. And now it’s a crime-free paradise.

  13. What do vets use for animals? Why doesn’t the state use that for people? It must be available if vets use it all the time.

  14. I don’t understand this fucking around with drug cocktails and new and better gas chambers. Just render the convict unconscious with standard surgical anesthetics, then kill them by whatever means is handy, knowing they won’t feel anything. What’s so hard about that?

    1. Something about drug companies not letting them use their drugs for executions… but ya there are certainly ways. A large catheter in a major vessel would be pretty quick and easy as well. No drugs required.

  15. You know who else used gas to execute people?

    1. Janet Reno?

    2. California?

    3. Terrence and Philip?

  16. though few studies have been done to verify its effects.

    wat? Its *nitrogen*. At STP its effectively inert. Humans can’t metabolize it even. You breathe pure nitrogen you suffocate.

    As for the whole ‘may cause distress in pets’ – yeah? You think? Because blood CO2 levels trigger the breath reflex. Pre-breath pure O2 (which you can’t get pets to do) or even just hyperventilate for a bit and Robert’s your father’s brother without having to worry about even the chance of discomfort.

  17. It’s almost like prohibition (in a sense) has led to far worse alternatives,

  18. Being against the death penalty in principle is fine. Telling me nitrogen gas isn’t an acceptable way to perform an execution is not.

  19. I really don’t understand this debate. There are some very good arguments against the death penalty. I oppose the death penalty on some of those grounds.

    But once you assume that the death penalty is appropriate, I fail to see why there is such furious debate over the means of execution. Yes, we should avoid gratuitous punishment. The 8th Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual punishment”. The Supreme Court in 1878 said that rules out drawing and quartering, public dissection, burning alive and/or disembowelment. Yeah, okay. Those are gratuitous punishments that serve none of the recognized five goals of sentencing – punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution.

    But to now claim that the death penalty must be as free of pain as falling asleep – that seems well beyond both the limits of the 8th Amendment and even the recognized goals of sentencing. Execution by asphyxiation, shooting, hanging or even the guillotine are all quick and no more painful than injuries you might suffer in an average summer.

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