Lawmakers mull nitrogen gas for executions in Oklahoma

AP News
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Posted: Mar 24, 2015 6:39 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma would become the nation's first state to allow the use of nitrogen gas to execute death-row inmates under legislation given preliminary approval Tuesday, as state lawmakers look for alternatives amid a growing shortage of lethal injection drugs.

The gas proposal was introduced at a time when fewer pharmacies and drug manufacturers are willing to supply drugs used in lethal injections, the primary method of execution in Oklahoma and other states. The U.S. Supreme Court also is reviewing how Oklahoma conducts executions, which are currently on hold in the state, following the botched injection of an inmate last year.

The bill, along with a similar proposal in Oklahoma House, would allow the state to use nitrogen gas — which when inhaled leads to hypoxia, the gradual lack of oxygen in the blood — if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional. Lethal injection would remain the state's primary execution method, but nitrogen gas would be the state's 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 an Oklahoma execution.

Neither the House nor Senate version of the plan has been publicly debated, and that lack of open discussion continued Tuesday when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 for the House bill without debate or testimony. The legislation, which has already been approved in the House, now moves to the full Senate. The Senate version has already been passed by the Senate and is pending in a House committee.

The co-author of the legislation, Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, didn't immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of Oklahoma's American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said lawmakers are taking the wrong approach.

"It's a fool's errand to even engage in this utterly bizarre process of searching out new ways to take people's lives against their will," Kiesel said, noting that nitrogen gas isn't used by any other states in executions. "We would be experimenting on the condemned using a process that has been banned in many states for the euthanasia of animals."

According to Amnesty International, which opposes the death penalty, no state has ever used nitrogen gas or inert gas hypoxia to execute an inmate. The organization said there have been no reports of the method being used in other countries, though execution data from China — the nation that executes the most people — is not readily available.

A group of Oklahoma death-row inmates is challenging the state's lethal injection method in federal court. They sued following the botched execution last April of Clayton Lockett, who struggled against his restraints after attendants administered lethal drugs through a poorly placed intravenous line.

The case involves whether midazolam, a sedative, properly renders an inmate unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered. Oklahoma officials concede that midazolam isn't their preferred execution drug, but that death-penalty states have been forced to explore alternatives because manufacturers of more effective drugs are refusing to sell them for use in lethal injections.

The governing body of the American Pharmacists Association is considering a policy that would oppose pharmacists' participation in executions, including providing the drugs used in lethal injections, according to group spokeswoman Michelle Spinnler.

In an email, she said the proposed wording of the policy states that the association opposes such participation in executions, "either directly or indirectly, on the basis that such activities are fundamentally contrary to the role of pharmacists as providers of health care."

A vote on the policy is scheduled this weekend.

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Online:

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