Oklahoma To Become First U.S. State To Execute Death Row Inmates With Nitrogen Gas

The method would replace lethal injection as the primary method.

Oklahoma is aiming to change the state’s primary method of execution by using nitrogen gas instead of lethal injection to kill death row inmates, which would make it the first state to do so.

The change pends on the development and finalization of an appropriate protocol, State Attorney General Mike Hunter and Corrections director Joe M. Allbaugh said at a press conference where they announced the decision on Wednesday.

The news comes amid a three-year halt on executions following unresolved issues with lethal injections, as well as state officials’ unsuccessful attempts to acquire lethal injection drugs after pharmaceutical companies refused to manufacture them.

The state has 49 inmates on death row, 17 of whom have exhausted their right to appeal, Hunter said.

A lethal injection death chamber is seen in a prison in Huntsville, Texas. 
A lethal injection death chamber is seen in a prison in Huntsville, Texas. 

“We can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait to find drugs,” he said of alternative methods. He added that using the gas “will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and requires no complex medical procedures.”

Breathing in nitrogen, which could be administered through a mask, would cause one to lose consciousness and die within minutes due to the gas starving the body of oxygen, Hunter added. 

He called it both “an effective and humane manner that satisfies both the constitution and the court system.”

Officials argued that the gas has been previously used in assisted suicides. However, the euthanasia is only legal in a few places, where there are strict rules about how to administer it.

Oklahoma’s state legislature approved the use of nitrogen gas as a backup method for execution in 2015. It came a year after the state botched an execution using lethal injection, in which an inmate writhed on a gurney for 40 minutes before dying.

Sister Helen Prejean, a prominent anti-death penalty advocate, voiced concern about the use of nitrogen on Twitter on Wednesday, calling it “human experimentation.”

“The suggestion by authorities that this new method is ‘more humane’ ignores the fact that it is an untried method, human experimentation practiced by the state upon its citizens,” she posted on Twitter. “More importantly, it ignores the unavoidable truths that there is no humane way to kill a conscious, thinking human being, and that the entire apparatus of capital punishment is deeply flawed and deeply wounding to us all.”

Dr. Joel Zivot, assistant professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University School of Medicine, expressed similar views to HuffPost in an interview in 2015.

“There’s no therapeutic use of nitrogen gas, and there’s no way to ethically or practically test if nitrogen gas is a humane alternative,” Zivot said. 

Nitrogen gas has been a backup form for execution in Mississippi since 2017, while a similar bill allowing it is pending in Alabama, the Associated Press reported.

Arizona, California, Missouri and Wyoming allow the use of a gas chamber as an alternative method of execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a capital punishment monitor.

Other execution methods authorized by states include electrocution, hanging and death by firing squad.

It will likely be some time before Oklahoma’s use of nitrogen goes into effect due to a court-ordered 150-day delay after a protocol is finalized, Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told Reuters, adding that litigation from opponents is expected as well.