In the never-ending saga of state's trying to find ways to kill inmates, the state of Oklahoma has announced that it will being using inert gas since it's no longer able to obtain the drugs it uses for lethal injection. As a result of their inability to obtain the drugs, Oklahoma has had an execution moratorium in effect since 2015.
According to Joe Allbaugh, the director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, his office will spend the next 90 to 120 days preparing the documents for the protocol. It would then be up to the Attorney General, Mike Hunter, to approve the protocol.
Last April the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission issued a report calling for the moratorium to remain in place until such time as the state reformed its death penalty process. The commission also called for the use of a one-drug barbiturate for future executions.
Mr. Hunter is on board with inert gas as the agent of death. Use of inert gas would bypass the need for physicians to prescribe or administer lethal doses of drugs to inmates. The gas would also be easy to obtain. According to Mr. Hunter, a person who is exposed to an excessive amount of inert gas would experience fatigue, dizziness, loss of consciousness and then death. He claims the use of inert gas would be "the safest, best and most effective" way to kill inmates.
However, in its Guidelines for the Euthansia of Animals, the American Veterinary Medical Association says that the use of nitrogen for the killing of turkeys, chickens and pigs is effective but that it's not appropriate for other mammals. According to the AVMA, inert gases "create an anoxic environment that is distressing for some species."
No one from the state has ever conducted any kind of testing to determine how to deliver the lethal dose of nitrogen. Or whether it should be released gradually or all at one.
But that's not going to stop Oklahoma. Despite conducting very little research, the legislature passed a bill authorizing the use of nitrogen in executions. Why? Because it's available and it's cheap.
The problem with changing the method of execution from lethal injection to inert gas is that there's no effective means of testing the method. The other problem is that when methods are changed it's generally to make the death penalty more palatable for the public.
Regardless of how "humane" you want to make the mode of execution, the fact remains we are still talking about killing people in the name of the state. As we continue to see folks exonerated on the basis of new evidence or prosecutorial misconduct, the notion that there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent an innocent man from being executed is naive.
Hager, Eli "Why Oklahoma plans to execute people with nitrogen," ABA Journal (March 16, 2018)