Nitrogen gas death penalty bills clear Oklahoma panels

AP News
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Posted: Feb 10, 2015 5:21 PM
Nitrogen gas death penalty bills clear Oklahoma panels

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma could become the first state to use nitrogen gas to execute inmates under a proposal to reinstate a method of execution that hasn't been used in the U.S. in decades but which supporters say would be painless and foolproof.

With no questions or debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 9-0 Tuesday to authorize "nitrogen hypoxia," which causes death by depleting the supply of oxygen in the blood, as Oklahoma's backup method of execution if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or if the deadly drugs become unavailable. A similar bill later passed 7-2 in a separate House panel without debate.

"It is a method that has been recognized as the most humane by those who oppose the death penalty," said Moore Republican Sen. Anthony Sykes, the chairman of the Senate committee. "It causes a very quick and sudden loss of consciousness and of life almost simultaneously."

The proposal comes as executions in Oklahoma are on hold amid a U.S. Supreme Court review of its lethal injection method. The case, which was sparked by a botched execution last spring, centers on whether the sedative midazolam properly renders an inmate unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered. 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.

Under current Oklahoma law, if lethal injection is declared unconstitutional, the state would revert to death by electrocution first and then firing squad.

Sykes says it's likely his proposal will undergo changes before the session ends in May, and he solicited members' input.

A House committee held a pre-session study on nitrogen hypoxia, which is similar to what scuba divers or pilots at high altitudes may mistakenly encounter if oxygen supplies diminish.

Rep. Mike Christian, a former highway patrolman who wrote the House bill, said pilots who were subjects of hypoxia studies reported feeling a sense of mild intoxication just before becoming unconscious.

"The people who have experienced it up to the point of unconsciousness said it was a euphoric feeling," said Christian, a Republican from Oklahoma City. "If they're saying it's euphoric, I'd say it's more humane."

Christian suggested the state could avoid paying for a new gas chamber — a projected cost of $300,000 — by using a mask or bag over an inmate's head.

But Ryan Kiesel, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, described the legislators' effort as a "fool's errand."

"It's absurd to try to chase down a more humane way to intentionally take the life of another human being against their will," Kiesel said.

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

Senate Bill 794: http://bit.ly/1EVExy9

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy