Oklahoma considers gas chamber to execute death row inmates

AP News
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Posted: Feb 09, 2015 6:06 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — With executions in Oklahoma on hold amid a constitutional review of its lethal injection formula, Republican legislators are pushing to make Oklahoma the first state in the nation to allow the use of nitrogen gas to execute death row inmates.

Two separate bills scheduled for hearings this week in legislative committees would make death by "nitrogen hypoxia" a backup method of execution if the state's current lethal injection process is found to be unconstitutional.

"You wouldn't need a medical doctor to do it. It's a lot more practical. It's efficient," said Rep. Mike Christian, an Oklahoma City Republican and former Oklahoma Highway patrolman who conducted a hearing last summer on hypoxia, or the depletion of oxygen in the bloodstream.

The U.S. Supreme Court currently is reviewing Oklahoma's three-drug method in a challenge sparked by a botched lethal injection last spring in which an inmate groaned and writhed on the gurney before a problem was discovered with an intravenous line. The case centers on whether the sedative midazolam properly renders an inmate unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered. Three scheduled lethal injections in Oklahoma have been delayed pending the high court's review.

Oklahoma officials concede midazolam is not the preferred drug for executions, but death penalty states have been forced to explore alternatives as manufacturers of more effective drugs refuse to sell them for use in lethal injections.

Tennessee passed a law last year to reinstate the electric chair if it can't get lethal drugs, and Utah is considering bringing back the firing squad. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has urged legislators to consider the creation of a state compounding pharmacy to produce the drugs itself.

A fiscal analysis of the Oklahoma bill projects it would cost about $300,000 to build a gas chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. A similar bill is pending in the Oklahoma Senate.

Christian said unlike traditional gas chambers that used drugs like cyanide that caused a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, breathing nitrogen would be painless because it leads to hypoxia, a gradual lack of oxygen in the blood, similar to what can happen to pilots at high altitudes.

Four states currently allow the use of lethal gas — Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming — but all have lethal injection as the primary method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. No state has ever used nitrogen gas or inert gas hypoxia to execute an inmate. The last U.S. inmate executed in a gas chamber was Walter LaGrand in Arizona in 1999.

Under current law in Oklahoma, where lethal injection has been used since 1990, if that method is found to be unconstitutional, the state would use the electric chair. The firing squad would be the third option.

Christian said he is considering amending his bill to eliminate electrocution as a backup method.

The Rev. Adam Leathers, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he wished lawmakers would entertain abolishing the death penalty altogether, rather than spending time developing more efficient ways to kill people.

"It's evidence of what a ludicrous idea this is to begin with," Leathers said. "We're scrambling around trying to figure out humane ways to kill someone.

"There isn't a right way to do the wrong thing."

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House Bill 1879: http://bit.ly/1vetcRn

Senate Bill 794: http://bit.ly/16LTEeV

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy