Oklahoma Officials Plan to Use Nitrogen for Executions

AN OCT. 9 2014 FILE

After trying unsuccessfully for months to obtain lethal injection drugs, Oklahoma officials said on Wednesday they plan to use nitrogen gas to execute inmates once the state resumes using the death penalty, marking the first time a U.S. state would use the gas to carry out capital punishment.

Death penalty opponents are already expressing skepticism about the use of nitrogen and demanding that Oklahoma be transparent as it preps a new protocol. Oklahoma would be the first state to employ the method.

Oklahoma's last executions drew scrutiny in the state and nationwide. In 2016, the state's grand jury recommended such a step be taken, as Oklahoma has had difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs. The court upheld Oklahoma's lethal injection methods, but executions remained on hold as a grand jury investigated how officials wound up using the wrong drug to execute an inmate earlier that year. He later died in the death chamber of a heart attack. Many have not been adopted, including a recommendation that there be an independent, third-party review of completed executions.

Oklahoma has 16 inmates on death row who have exhausted all appeals, Hunter's spokeswoman said.

Hunter said the administration of the gas would probably require the use of a mask placed over the inmate's head, but he said the mechanical details still have to be worked out.

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Nitrogen's introduction as a potential execution method in Oklahoma isn't a surprise.

"Nitrogen hypoxia has been studied as a means of suicide and as it relates to pilots for decades and its benefits are it's not a complicated medical procedure, nor does it require pharmaceuticals that might be restricted in supply", said Michael Copeland, an assistant professor of criminology at East Central University in Ada who testified at a legislative hearing about the issue in September 2014. Still, at a time when states have struggled to obtain lethal injection drugs, Oklahoma's move is the latest in a series of dramatic efforts some officials have made to continue carrying out death sentences.

Midazolam, a benzodiazepine, was developed in the 1970s and became one of the world's most commonly used sedatives; it is used to make a prisoner unconscious and limit pain. The lawsuit that death row inmates have filed has an agreement that the state will not seek an execution date until 150 days after providing information about changes to the protocol.

According to the state law, if lethal injection is held unconstitutional or is unavailable, an execution shall be carried out by nitrogen hypoxia.

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