Nitrogen Hypoxia – The Death Penalty’s Future?

It’s never been done before and might never be used, but Alabama has announced its near-completion of a nitrogen gas chamber if it should prove impossible to obtain drugs for lethal injections. Far from dusting off its electric chair, (the notorious ‘Yellow Mama’) like Tennessee and South Carolina or offering firing squads as South Carolina also proposes, Alabama is preparing an old method with a modern twist; Nitrogen hypoxia. Arizona has recently returned its old gas chamber to active service.

Nitrogen is an inert gas, as lethal in large amounts as any other. Alabama’s legislators hope it will provide quicker, less painful death without the suffering inflicted by cyanide gas, for decades the standard method for gas chamber execution. Just as William Kemmler debuted the electric chair at Auburn Prison in August, 1890 somebody might debut the latest in America’s long, mostly-discredited line of methods intended to kill less unpleasantly.

The gas chamber is nothing new as a concept. The world’s first was used in Nevada in 1924 to execute murderer Gee Jon. Even before its first use the method attracted controversy. The hastily-converted prison barber shop was by no means airtight. While Jon himself died fairly quickly witnesses had to be hurriedly removed after the smell of cyanide gas caused a near-panic. While never as popular as the electric chair, the chamber was widely used in States like California, Arizona, Wyoming, Missouri and Mississippi.

At a signal from the prison Warden an executioner works a lever mixing sodium cyanide with dilute sulphuric acid to create a lethal cloud of cyanide gas inside an airtight steel chamber. The prisoner, strapped into a metal chair inside the chamber, then suffers terribly before falling unconscious and dying. While they might be unconscious within a minute or two they might last considerably longer and suffer considerably more. After being certified dead and left to sit in the chamber for some time, the gas is pumped out into the open air.

When the body is removed by guards wearing gas masks and rubber gloves the entire chamber has to be decontaminated from top to bottom. The prisoner’s clothes are removed and burned. Every inch of the chamber and the prisoner’s body has to be thoroughly washed down with ammonia to neutralise any remaining cyanide. After one execution at San Quentin the prisoner’s mother kissed her dead son and spent the next week in hospital with cyanide poisoning. In executing her son the State of California almost killed her as well.

Most gas chambers were specially built by Eaton Metal Products of Denver, Colorado. It’s something that company would nowadays rather forget. Some, like those in California and Missouri, had two chairs for what California prison officials once called a ‘double event.’ Others like Maryland, Mississippi, Arizona and Colorado, were built with a single chair. No chamber would require much conversion to deliver nitrogen instead of cyanide.

From its inception the gas chamber was by far the most expensive, complicated, difficult and dangerous method ever adopted in the US. The chamber and associated equipment are highly specialized in manufacture and operation. Preparation, use and decontamination involve considerable risk for the execution team and official witnesses. All gas chambers leak to some small degree. Pre-execution testing for leaks often involves little more than a lighted candle and a small smoke bomb.

Once the chamber itself has been certified airtight and Vaseline smeared heavily around the edges of the viewing windows the chamber can be tested with the cyanide-and-acid mix. In his book ‘Death at Midnight’ former Mississippi warden Don Cabana described a near-lethal accident when testing it before the execution of Edward Earl Johnson in May, 1987:

“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.”

The suffering endured by the condemned was also often hideous even when gassings went as planned which, unfortunately, was by no means guaranteed. Leanderess Riley in California, Dennis Lawson in North Carolina, Jimmy Lee Gray in Mississippi and Donald Harding in Arizona were horrendous for the condemned and no better for those having to witness their deaths. Nitrogen hypoxia would be the first trial of a brand-new method in the US since Texas delivered the first lethal injection to Charlie Brooks in 1982.

So how, theoretically, would nitrogen gas execution work? Would it be any more humane (or less inhumane) than electricity, hanging, the firing squad or the cyanide gas chamber? The short answer is we don’t know until it’s actually tried.  Theoretically a human body doesn’t detect abnormal physical symptoms with nitrogen as it does with cyanide. So, theoretically, the prisoner wouldn’t experience the same pain and feeling of suffocation. If anything they would experience either a brief high followed by quick unconsciousness or a progressive euphoria before passing out and then dying. Theoretically, anyway.

There are two ways nitrogen could be administered. They could be strapped into a chair with a face mask similar to those used for delivering other gases. A pilot’s oxygen mask connected to a gas bottle and regulator could be a basic, effective delivery system. Directly delivering so large a volume of concentrated gas might cause unconsciousness in under fifteen seconds. Certainly far quicker and far less cruel than cyanide, at least according to Alabama. That said, a century ago many thought cyanide would be better than electricity. Nowadays that seems debatable at best.

The other would be simply replacing the air inside a chamber with increasing levels of nitrogen. As nitrogen levels increased the prisoner would hopefully be unconscious after around one minute and dead in around seven. Not much faster than cyanide but theoretically far less painful. It would still, however, require multiple executions using nitrogen gas before the execution procedure could be refined into a fully workable, standardized process. Experimental execution to refine and perfect a method is also nothing new, albeit a morally flawed and rather twisted idea to put it mildly.

Given the problems with William Kemmler and Gee Jon that bodes ill for whoever might become an unwilling part of penal history. New York needed years of experimental electrocutions and hideous botches to ‘refine’ the method and even then botches still occurred. Kemmler’s went so terribly George Westinghouse claimed they would have done better using an axe. Despite this and many other disasters the chair was adopted by over twenty-five states at one time.

When executing Gee Jon in 1924 Nevada’s improvised gas chamber leaked. Not being a custom-made airtight chamber, the converted barber shop at the Nevada State Prison nearly killed the witnesses as well. They had to be hurriedly removed after the aroma of cyanide gas was smelt outside their new appliance. Despite this the chamber soon found a home in the West and Mid-West. Most Eastern and Southern states preferred the electric chair, although Arkansas’s electrocution of James Wells in 1923 was probably the most botched execution in American history.

Many of the early lethal injections and many subsequent ones have also gone wrong in various ways. Unable to obtain the original cocktail of potassium chloride, sodium thiopental and pancuronium bromide, states have tested many drugs and combinations thereof often with disastrous effect. Botched executions in Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas, Arizona and other states bear grim witness to lethal injection’s unreliability in dispensing quick and painless death. Ironically it was a botched gas chamber execution that caused Arizona to adopt lethal injection, recently dusting off its cyanide gas chamber due to the shortage of lethal injection drugs.

Alabama isn’t the first state to look at nitrogen hypoxia. A few years ago Oklahoma added it to their repertoire but discarded it when new supplies of lethal injection drugs were found. The first state west of the Mississippi to adopt the electric chair grotesquely named ‘Sizzling Sally,’ Oklahoma was also first to adopt lethal injection although Texas was first to actually use it.

Whether nitrogen hypoxia will become the next standard method has yet to be decided. Oklahoma has already discarded the idea. South Carolina and Tennessee have restored their electric chairs. Virginia, once the nation’s oldest bastion of capital punishment, recently abolished capital punishment altogether. At the time of writing Alabama has no formal protocol for a nitrogen gas execution, but its chamber is evidently nearing completion.

The ghosts of William Kemmler and Gee Jon, meanwhile, might be hoping the next debutant dies more easily than they did.

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