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Oklahoma Rep Proposes New Form of Execution by Nitrogen Asphyxiation

Mike Christian, a Republican in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, called nitrogen asphyxiation "a humane way to die."

by John Dyer
Sep 19 2014, 9:25pm

Image via Flickr

Instead of injecting convicts with a mix of lethal drugs, sitting them in an electric chair, sending them to gas chambers or firing squads, hanging them, decapitating them, or torturing them to death medieval-style, an Oklahoma state legislator is calling for capital punishment by nitrogen asphyxiation.

"It's the most humane way to die," said Mike Christian, a Republican in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, talking to Spiegel Online. "You just sit there and a few minutes later, you're dead."

Christian ballyhooed the benefits of nitrogen, claiming it would put an end to a recent pattern of botched executions.

Lethal injection executions are supposed to last around 10 minutes.

But earlier this month Clayton Lockett writhed and groaned in agony for 43 minutes after Oklahoma officials injected him with un-tested toxins. Lockett was convicted of murder, rape, and kidnapping in a 1999 incident where he shot a 19-year-old and ordered his friend to bury her alive.

This summer in Arizona, Joseph Wood took nearly two hours to die from a lethal injection. He murdered two people. Dennis McGuire took approximately 25 minutes to die in Ohio. He raped and stabbed a pregnant woman to death. An Ohio government investigation claimed he died humanely.

The problem stems from the EU's decision in 2011 to halt pentobarbital and thiopental exports to the United States because of their use in executions. Since then, states have been experimenting with new drugs.

Christian proposed putting a bag over convicts' heads, a mask on their face, or sitting them in a small tent inhaling nitrogen rather than oxygen until they black out and suffocate.

"You just go to sleep," he told the German news outlet. "You don't have to have a doctor on staff. You don't have to try to find a vein. You don't have to figure out whether to use a Winchester bullet or a Remington bullet."

The lawmaker hoped to soon file a bill to legalize the practice.

He noted with macabre pride that a Sooner State medical examiner invented death by lethal injection in 1977. "Back then, it was Oklahoma that came up with an innovation, and today we should take the lead again," he said.

Christian appears to be a mover and shaker. The Oklahoma County District Attorney once claimed that he stood to benefit from an alleged bribery scheme in the Oklahoma Legislature and the state's medical examiner office.

Executive Director Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center — a research group that doesn't take a side in the anti or pro-capital punishment debate — didn't like the idea of nitrogen asphyxiation.

"This is not how people put pets down," Dieter told VICE News, noting that injections were supposed to be humane compared to gas chambers that use hydrogen cyanide and other poisons. "Gas is a throwback."

Nobody knows exactly how someone would react during forced nitrogen hypoxia, he added, because it's never been used to legally execute someone before.

"When you have an unwilling subject, somebody who is going to hold his or her breath, it is going to be problematic," he said. "This would be an experiment. It puts us in the business of trying to find by trial and error a way of killing people."

Oklahoma lawmakers should focus less on better forms of capital punishment and more on discovering why executioners keep screwing up, he said, adding that states have conducted only half-hearted investigations of the botched executions.

"It's all about new technologies putting a more friendly or humane face on the death penalty," he said. "We need to get to the bottom of what went wrong."

The World Should Follow Belgium's Lead In Granting Prisoners the Right to Die. Read more here.

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johndyerjr

Image via Flickr