Alabama’s Latest Steps to Use Nitrogen Hypoxia Recapitulate the Failed Promise of Humane Execution | Austin Sarat | Verdict

On February 15, Alabama Correctional Services Commissioner John Hamm told the Associated Press that the state is close to finalizing the protocol needed to conduct executions by nitrogen hypoxia. Ever since the state added this method to its run options menu nearly five years ago, in March 2018, it has encountered problems executing the steps required for actual use.

Those problems appeared to have been resolved last September when Assistant Attorney General James Houts told a federal judge there was a “very good chance” that nitrogen hypoxia could be used in Alan Miller’s planned execution. Houts said the nitrogen hypoxia protocol, which would be “embedded” into the state’s existing execution procedures manual, “is in place,” although it is not yet final.

But three days later, Hamm contradicted him in an affidavit. He said ADOC was unwilling to “carry out an execution by nitrogen hypoxia.”

Whether or not its recent claim that it’s on the verge of being ready is credible, the idea of ​​using nitrogen to put condemned inmates to death is just the latest example of this nation’s illusory quest for one humane method of execution.

Accordingly those of the Atlantic Elizabeth Bruenig, Executed by “Nitrogen hypoxia is the dream of Stuart Creque, a technology consultant and filmmaker who described the method in a 1995 article for National Reviewin which he speculated optimistically about the ease and comfort of gas-induced death.”

Since then, other proponents have also touted its simplicity.

An article in Oklahoma clock (Oklahoma also authorizes execution by nitrogen hypoxia) described the nitrogen hypoxia process as follows: “The condemned enters the room where he will breathe his last. He is being held down in some way, perhaps strapped to the T-shaped platform where other offenders have been executed by injection. He may have taken a sedative or be given one in the room. But he probably won’t be too dazed.”

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In an execution by nitrogen hypoxia, “the prisoner may then have a mask or a plastic hood or bag strapped to his face. Colorless, odorless nitrogen gas enters the mask from a tank similar to those used to inflate helium balloons. The gas could come from any one of thousands of distributors or manufacturers nationwide.”

Proponents note that “nitrogen itself does not cause death; hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, does.” They say death occurs “if one breathes only nitrogen without the life-sustaining oxygen, which makes up about 20 percent of air.” Inhaling “just a breath or two of pure nitrogen will result in sudden unconsciousness and, if oxygen is not supplied, death.”

When Oklahoma became the first state to introduce nitrogen hypoxia in 2015, Gov. Mary Fallin claimed it would induce death “effectively and without cruelty.” Signing the new law into law, Fallin said, “The law I signed today gives the state of Oklahoma another capital punishment option that meets that standard,” ensuring the execution “is painless and humane.” .

As was the case in many areas of policy making in a federal system, Alabama simply copied Oklahoma’s plan.

Trip Pittman, the Alabama state senator who sponsored Alabama’s nitrogen hypoxia legislation, acknowledged that he got the idea from Oklahoma. Pittman also reiterated Governor Fallin’s promise that this method of execution was “less painful” and a “more humane method” of carrying out a death sentence.

For citizens and capital punishment scholars alike, the Fallin/Pittman comments on nitrogen hypoxia ring familiar.

Over the past century and beyond, the sales pitch for new ways of putting people to death has taken on a recognizable form. Every time someone has pushed for the use of a new execution technology, they have spoken of its ability to ease the pain and suffering of those condemned, also calling it humane.

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For example, at the end of the 19th At the end of the twentieth century, when New York substituted the electric chair for hanging, scientists argued: “The speed of electric current is so great that the brain is paralyzed; is actually dead before the nerves can convey a sense of shock.” The so-called Gerry Commission, which recommended the electric chair to the governor and state legislature, concluded that electrocution should occur “immediately upon its application.” would.

We heard something similar again in 1921, when two Nevada legislators passed legislation to make the gas chamber that state’s method of execution. They called it the Humane Execution Bill.

Around the same time, Dr. J. Chris Long in the Pennsylvania Medical Journal this death in the gas chamberwill happen quickly, after the gas rises to a level with the prisoner’s mouth and nose…” Lange said that such a death – “without preparations” – “would leave the criminal little more afraid of the future than the common fate of all Humanity”.

Finally, when Oklahoma took the lead in introducing lethal injection in 1977, its proponents put it simply: lethal injection would be accomplished with “no fight, no stink, no pain.”

Despite these good intentions and noble promises, history has proved a tough teacher.

None of these methods of execution lived up to the hype.

Some inmates who were electrocuted caught fire. Many of those who died in the gas chambers did not do so quickly or painlessly. Instead, they suffered a grisly, long, and agonizing death as they slowly suffocated.

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Lethal injection has proven the most unreliable of all, a lesson driven home in 2022 when 35% of execution attempts using this method were botched.

Regarding Alabama’s push to deploy nitrogen hypoxia, there are many reasons to be concerned that similar problems will arise.

We know there were serious concerns when it was used to euthanize animals. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2013 guidelines for animal euthanasia concluded that nitrogen hypoxia should not be used in conjunction with anesthesia, but recognizes that it can delay death.

And The guard quotes Joel Zivot, professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory College, as saying: “[N]Nitrogen gas isn’t going to work…because even though the gas is inert, it’s going to be a lot more complicated to breathe, and getting people to breathe cooperatively is going to be more complicated. Because it’s odorless and colorless,” Zivot continues, “it’s dangerous to handle, so anyone around the person they’re gassing could theoretically be at risk themselves.”

As Alabama prepares to implement the latest novelty in execution methods, it should remember history’s lesson: There can be no such thing as a foolproof or humane execution. If not, the state, which has already had more than its fair share of execution scares, will, as philosopher George Santayan puts itMay be “condemned to repeat them”.


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