Ok­la­homa set to al­low ni­tro­gen for ex­e­cu­tions


With U.S. death penalty states scram­bling for al­ter­na­tives to lethal in­jec­tion amid a short­age of deadly drugs, Ok­la­homa leg­is­la­tors be­lieve they’ve found a fool­proof and hu­mane method — ni­tro­gen gas hy­poxia.

With­out a sin­gle dis­sent­ing vote, the Ok­la­homa Se­nate gave fi­nal leg­isla­tive ap­proval Thurs­day and sent the gover­nor a bill that would al­low the new method to be used if lethal in­jec­tion is ruled un­con­sti­tu­tional or if the deadly drugs be­come un­avail­able. Repub­li­can Gov. Mary Fallin sup­ports the death penalty, but her spokesman de­clined to com­ment on the mea­sure Thurs­day.

Crit­ics of us­ing ni­tro­gen gas say that one con­cern is that the method is untested, and some states even ban its use to put an­i­mals to sleep.

Ex­e­cu­tions are on hold in Ok­la­homa while the U.S. Supreme Court con­sid­ers whether the state’s cur­rent three-drug method of lethal in­jec­tion is con­sti­tu­tional. Ok­la­homa and other states have been forced to come up with new drugs and new sources for drugs as phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, many of which are based in Europe, have stopped sell­ing them for ex­e­cu­tions.

There are no re­ports of ni­tro­gen gas ever be­ing used to ex­e­cute hu­mans. But sup­port­ers of Ok­la­homa’s plan ar­gue that ni­tro­genin­duced hy­poxia — or a lack of oxy­gen in the blood — is a hu­mane ex­e­cu­tion method.

“The process is fast and pain­less,” said Ok­la­homa City Repub­li­can Rep. Mike Chris­tian, a for­mer Ok­la­homa High­way Pa­trol trooper who wrote the bill. “It’s fool­proof.”

Added benefits, Chris­tian said, are that ni­tro­gen is easy to ac­cess and med­i­cal ex­perts wouldn’t need to be in­volved in the process.

“There is no way for anti-death penalty ac­tivists ... to re­strict its sup­ply,” Chris­tian added.

But op­po­nents say there’s no way to know whether the method is pain­less and ef­fec­tive.

“It just hasn’t been tried, so we don’t know,” said Rep. Emily Vir­gin, a Demo­crat from Nor­man who op­poses the death penalty. “This is all based on some In­ter­net re­search and a doc­u­men­tary from the BBC.”

The changes come af­ter a botched ex­e­cu­tion last year in which Ok­la­homa was us­ing a new seda­tive as the first in a three-drug com­bi­na­tion. State of­fi­cials tried to halt the lethal in­jec­tion af­ter the in­mate writhed on the gur­ney and moaned. He died 43 min­utes af­ter the process be­gan.

The prob­lem­atic ex­e­cu­tion was blamed on a poorly placed in­tra­venous line and prompted a law­suit from Ok­la­homa death row in­mates, who ar­gue that the state’s new drug com­bi­na­tion presents a se­ri­ous risk of pain and suf­fer­ing. The U.S. Supreme Court is sched­uled to hear ar­gu­ments later this month.

Un­der the bill that passed Thurs­day, lethal in­jec­tion would re­main the state’s first choice for ex­e­cu­tions and ni­tro­gen gas would be its first backup method — ahead of the elec­tric chair, which the state hasn’t used since 1966, and a fir­ing squad, which has never been used in Ok­la­homa.

Other death penalty states also are look­ing at al­ter­na­tives to lethal in­jec­tion. Ten­nessee passed a law last year to re­in­state the elec­tric chair if it can’t get lethal drugs, and Utah has re­in­stated the fir­ing squad as a backup method.

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