Not long ago the State of South Carolina chose to take a giant step backwards on the death penalty, reinstating the electric chair as a method and adding the firing squad as another alternative. A boycott on supplying drugs for lethal injection has seen several States try different drugs and different protocols to administer them. As the shortage has continued some States have started dusting off old methods instead of considering abolition as a possibility.
I predicted this several years ago and it’s no pleasure at all to be right. Shorn of their ability use lethal injection and unwilling to consider abolition, I remarked that some States would adopt an attitude of ‘If you don’t let us use our ‘nicer’ methods we’ll dust off our nastier ones instead.’ Since then Tennessee has reinstated the electric chair, South Carolina has reinstated the electric chair and now offers the firing squad as well and now Arizona has dusted off its gas chamber.
With an irony as bitter as cyanide itself, Arizona moved to lethal injection after the hideous gassing of Donald Harding. Harding took eleven minutes to die while witnesses vomited and fainted in the witness room itself. Arizona’s last gassing, that of German national Walter LeGrand, lasted eighteen minutes and, with the gas chamber, these are not isolated incidents. Unsurprisngly, given LeGrand’s nationality, the idea of a German dying in a gas chamber did little for Arizona’s standing abroad. Arizona, however, remained unrepentant.
Intended as a ‘humane’ alternative to electrocution, the chamber is in fact the most expensive method to install and maintain, most complicated and dangerous to prepare and potentially lethal to use for the execution team, never mind the horrendous suffering inflicted upon the prisoner. With its airtight seals, complex pipework, lethal chemicals and complicated preparation and operation, the gas chamber is an accident waiting to happen.
It wouldn’t be the first time, either. Former Mississippi Warden Don Cabana once described a potentially-deadly blunder while preparing the chamber to execute murderer Edward Earl Johnson in 1987. Johnson’s execution, covered so well by BBC documentary ‘Fourteen Days in May,’ was preceded by a test. Cabana described the mistake in his book ‘Death at Midnight: Confessions of an Executioner:’
“Roger Vanlandingham was the officer responsible for pouring the cyanide crystals into the receptacle under the chair. I was standing in the doorway as he took the cap off the jar and crouched down to start the cyanide on its way. Strangely, the crystals disappeared from view, and it took a few seconds before anyone realized that something was amiss. The crystals were going down the small shaft directly into the sulfuric acid, producing a small, willowy-looking, deadly cloud. After repeatedly running through the checklist, none of us had noticed the lever in the down position. Consequently, the dish that holds the cyanide was already sitting in the acid, and the seven of us who were in the room at the time could have been killed.”
Gas chambers have been around since Nevada inaugurated theirs in 1924, Gee Jon being the first prisoner to die by lethal gas. The improvised chamber, formerly the prison barber shop until it was converted, leaked. While Jon himself died relatively quickly witnesses had to hurriedly rushed out of the small building after noticing a scent of cyanide gas. Since then hundreds of prisoners have died in gas chambers, although this supposedly more ‘humane’ method had long fallen out of favour. Nevada chose lethal injection, abandoning its gas chamber after the execution of murderer Jesse Bishop in 1979.
Mississippi, Missouri, Colorado, North Carolina and California have abandoned theirs, Maryland has abandoned capital punishment altogether, barring its few already-condemned convicts whose fates remain undecided. California last used its chamber to execute David Mason in 1993. In 1994 Federal District judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled its further use to be cruel and unusual punishment violating the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution, but Arizona has decided to dust theirs off and has already purchased the cyanide and other chemicals for future use.
Given its complex nature, botched gas chamber executions are as common as any other. As strange and distasteful as it probably sounds Harding’s death (which prompted Arizona to adopt lethal injection) was fairly typical as gas chamber executions go. Walter LeGrand lasted almost twenty minutes and cases like his are hardly unusual. Some prisoners have a greater resistance to cyanide gas. Others hold their breath for as long as possible, ignoring the traditional last-minute advice given them by prison staff of “Count ten, breathe deep and don’t fight the gas.”. Even those who listen will undoubtedly suffer extreme pain and fear before finally falling into unconsciousness.
That the sight of a human being dying from cyanide gas poisoning is hideous is beyond doubt. From its inception most gas chambers were built with the chairs inside facing away from the witnesses. They were able to see the prisoner from behind so could see them convulse and hear them cough, gasp wheeze or try to speak. They couldn’t see the prisoner turn purple, vomit violently and lose control of their bodily functions and were intended not to. Witnesses were there to certify that the convict had been executed, not to see the full nature of their death.
Dr. Richard Traystman, Director of the Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine Research Laboratories at Johns Hopkins Medical School, once described the effects of cyanide gas in grim detail:
“The pain begins immediately, and is felt in the arms, shoulders, back, and chest. The sensation is similar to the pain felt by a person during a heart attack, where essentially, the heart is being deprived of oxygen. The severity of the pain varies directly with the diminishing oxygen reaching the tissues. The agitation and anxiety a person experiences in the hypoxic state will stimulate the autonomic nervous system… …The person may begin to drool, urinate, defecate, or vomit. There will be muscular contractions. These responses can occur both while the person is conscious, or when he becomes unconscious.
When the anoxia sets in, the brain remains alive for from two to five minutes. The heart will continue to beat for a period of time after that, perhaps five to seven minutes, or longer, though at a very low cardiac output. Death can occur ten to twelve minutes after the gas is released in the chamber.”
One especially nightmarish display returns us to Mississippi and the gassing of murderer Jimmy Lee Gray at Parchman in 1983. Gray’s crime, the sexual murder of a child, was so horrendous that even other condemned prisoners turned their backs on him. Warden Cabana described him as the convict they all loved to hate. Even on Death Row there are certain crimes considered beyond the pale and Gray’s was certainly one of them. His execution should also have been beyond the pale, but wasn’t.
Parchman’s chamber, silver-painted and with a chair nicknamed ‘Black Death,’ had a vertical metal bar sited directly behind the prisoner’s head. By the time Edward Earl Johnson died in 1987 a leather headpiece secured the prisoner’s head to it after Gray spent nearly ten minutes pounding the back of his skull against the bar. The scene was so hideous prison officials ordered witnesses to leave before Gray was actually certified dead.
Whether Gray died of the gas itself, was convulsing uncontrollably or deliberately beat himself into unconsciousness rather than suffer any further has never been ascertained, but Gray’s death and the furore surrounding it eventually prompted Mississippi to abandon it gas chamber entirely, replacing it with lethal injection in July 1984. Inmates condemned before that date could choose either the needle or the chamber. After Gray only three more convicts were gassed; Edward Earl Johnson, Connie Ray Evans and Leo Edwards.
For anyone with the stomach to watch it, the documentary ‘Fourteen Days in May‘ is available online. It makes for the most distressing viewing and includes the chamber being tested on live rabbits, but remains one of the most accurate films on the death penalty in general and the gas chamber in particular. The last word on the gas chamber as a method belongs to UPI reporter Daniel Lohwasser who witnessed Gray’s execution:
“The images of Jimmy Lee Gray searching the room with his eyes, straining to escape the gas, and smashing his head against the pole, are permanently burned into my memory. These images are far more cruel, barbaric, and demoralizing than any other gruesome act that I have witnessed.”
Coming from Lohwasser, himself a Vietnam veteran, that should give pause for thought. In 1998 Mississippi’s gas chamber was retired completely. Arizona’s is far from its last gasp.