« NAAUSA sends letter to House members explaining its opposition of federal statutory sentencing reforms | Main | Spotlighting the import, impact and new debates over prosecutorial control of charging juves as adults »
September 11, 2016
Is Ohio again about to pioneer a new execution method?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Columbus Dispatch article from last week headlined "Ohio looks at nitrogen as a new execution method." Long-time readers may recall, from this post back in 2009, that Ohio was the first state to switch to a one-drug lethal injection protocol after it botch an execution. And, as this new article explains, new problems with lethal injection plans may prompt Ohio to become an execution pioneer again. Here are the details:
Ohio might consider adding nitrogen gas as a new execution method because of problems securing lethal injection drugs.
There have been no executions in the state for 2½ years, largely because of lawsuits and difficulty obtaining drugs for lethal injection. Beginning in January, there are 28 convicted killers with execution dates scheduled over four years.
John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said today lethal injection is "stalled" and it's time for a change. Prosecutors have long been strong supporters of Ohio's death penalty law. "I think the legislature ought to recommend another method of execution," Murphy said in an interview. He recommends switching to nitrogen gas, a method he called "humane and reasonably inexpensive."
Nitrogen gas, pumped into an air-tight chamber, produces asphyxiation by a lack of oxygen in the blood. It has not been used for executions, although Oklahoma adopted it as a backup method. The sponsor of the Oklahoma law called it "foolproof." People occasionally die accidentally from nitrogen asphyxiation. Deep-sea divers sometimes suffer from a form of it, producing an effect often described as euphoric. The gas is widely available and inexpensive.
JoEllen Smith, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said the agency "continues to seek all legal means to obtain the drugs necessary to carry out court-ordered executions." State Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, "It's good to look at alternative methods that are humane. That's something we should definitely do." But Butler added, "One problem is if it's something that's not been tried before, you need to vet it to make sure it's appropriate. It's certainly going to be tested in the court system."
Other states have moved ahead with alternatives. Tennessee permits use of the electric chair, Utah allows the firing squad, and Oklahoma allows nitrogen gas.
Dr. Jonathan Groner, a professor of clinical surgery at Ohio State University College of Medicine, said using nitrogen gas could be "dangerous and impractical."
"You and I are breathing 78 percent nitrogen right now," he said. "It's not a poison. It's an inert gas." When nitrogen is introduced, oxygen is pushed out of the bloodstream, causing potentially painful suffocation, Groner said. "I would challenge that it's foolproof. We've heard that before," he said.
September 11, 2016 at 09:46 PM | Permalink
Dr. Jonathan Groner is either being deliberately obtuse or is flat ignorant. The suffocation response is simply not due to lack of oxygen, the human body has no method for detecting such. It is instead a response to excess carbon dioxide.
Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 11, 2016 10:32:30 PM
I agree Soronel. One can make whatever moral arguments one wants but the physics is indisputable. Pneumonia is called the "old man's friend" because it is considered a peaceful way to die. Inert gas creates the exact same death process. The idea that it is painful in any way is ludicrous.
Posted by: Daniel | Sep 12, 2016 11:46:11 AM
For what it is worth, 79.524% of air is stuff you can't breath (unless you are a plant), and yes, Krypton is a real element although it is nobel gas and not a green radioactive solid):
"This is composition of air in percent by volume, at sea level at 15°C and 101325 Pa.
Nitrogen -- N2 -- 78.084%
Oxygen -- O2 -- 20.9476%
Argon -- Ar -- 0.934%
Carbon Dioxide -- CO2 -- 0.0314%
Neon -- Ne -- 0.001818%
Methane -- CH4 -- 0.0002%
Helium -- He -- 0.000524%
Krypton -- Kr -- 0.000114%
Hydrogen -- H2 -- 0.00005%
Xenon -- Xe -- 0.0000087%
Ozone -- O3 -- 0.000007%
Nitrogen Dioxide -- NO2 -- 0.000002%
Iodine -- I2 -- 0.000001%
Carbon Monoxide -- CO -- trace
Ammonia -- NH3 -- trace"
Posted by: ohwilleke | Sep 12, 2016 1:51:39 PM
Each time, new methods of execution are promoted as ideal, experts assuring us of these things. Each time, some problems arise.
There was pushback. I'd like to hear critics of the method (as compared to any method) explain themselves. A sentence or two isn't enough. For instance, see this article: https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/06/01/after-lethal-injection#.CHtkwJqUQ
"But implementation remains an open question. Will gradual or rapid exposure to a full concentration of the gas be more effective and less distressing? Will non-medical staff be any better at securing a mask — keeping a perfect, airtight seal — than they have been at finding a vein for an IV? What about the room where the gas would be administered? Existing facilities are not airtight, and if even the smallest amount of oxygen seeps in, the death may be prolonged."
"Bret Gilliam, a diving consultant for the Navy and Coast Guard, says that diving too deep without any oxygen also leads to a nitrogen-caused blackout, but “would initially invoke panic and distress due to no metabolic gas to sustain” the nervous system's calm functioning. Gilliam notes that every person has a different reaction, but those already experiencing anxiety or fear — say, someone about to be executed — tend to feel the worst." etc.
Posted by: Joe | Sep 12, 2016 2:16:40 PM
Two thoughts. (1) I entirely agree that how this works in practice will depend on how its implemented. For example, I think using a surgical mask as a means to deliver the gas is a TERRIBLE idea and will lead to all kinds of problems. There are more effective ways to deliver the gas. (2) I think there is a significant difference between a pain-free and a stress-free death. Anyone who is about to die and knows it is going to experience some psychological stress.
Posted by: Daniel | Sep 12, 2016 5:43:22 PM
The criticisms of nitrogen gas seem to be that it is not idiot proof, and it is not guaranteed to be absolutely painless. However, those criticisms apply to all potential methods of executions.
I would agree that the government should periodically review its method of execution to find the most humane form of execution among the potentially available options. However, assuming that you do not oppose the death penalty for other reasons, as long as the mechanism of execution is not crueler than it has to be, that is all that can legitimately be asked of the execution protocol. That is inherent in both the Baze and Glossip decisions requiring a comparison of the proposed execution protocol with available alternatives.
I don't know if nitrogen gas is the best available alternative. At first glance, it seems better than the electric chair and the use of cyanide gas. Whether it is better than lethal injection probably does not matter as lethal injection is fast becoming an unavailable alternative. But it is worth further study. And those who oppose nitrogen gas need to explain why there is a better alternative, not just that they don't like nitrogen gas, especially when what they really mean is that they do not like the death penalty.
Posted by: tmm | Sep 13, 2016 10:25:01 AM
"The criticisms of nitrogen gas seem to be that it is not idiot proof, and it is not guaranteed to be absolutely painless. However, those criticisms apply to all potential methods of executions."
This is a strawman. The criticisms worry that there will be problems and pain. I'm not going to assume the critics want perfection. I read them as saying "too much as a matter of constitutional law and/or good policy. Perfection not assumed."
Given the "mechanism of execution is not crueler than it has to be" standard, seems to me that nitrogen gas (or the firing squad) has to be seriously investigated and/or tried if it is better than lethal injection by the quantum necessary. It is quite true that people like myself are against the death penalty are against it for a range of reasons. But, it is appropriate to be careful with new ("unusual") techniques, especially when the other side at times with respect seems to glorify it a tad much.
As to Daniel, I agree there will be some degree of stress there, so it's going to be a matter of degree. Some do, however, make it out to be some sort of totally peaceful death, which is unrealistic. This includes the realistic nature of forced death.
Posted by: Joe | Sep 13, 2016 11:02:32 AM
We already completely discount the psychological aspect, it's value is zero when considering the merits of a method of execution.
If you do a search on Groner it becomes obvious that his problem is with execution itself not how it is carried out. However that is a losing argument with the public so he has to make stuff up (as he did here claiming that the suffocation response is due to lack of oxygen).
Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 13, 2016 11:42:28 AM
"We already completely discount the psychological aspect, it's value is zero when considering the merits of a method of execution."
I am not sure what this means.
"If you do a search on Groner it becomes obvious that his problem is with execution itself not how it is carried out. However that is a losing argument with the public so he has to make stuff up (as he did here claiming that the suffocation response is due to lack of oxygen)."
A person can be for or against the death penalty and be concerned about how it is carried out. The public is strongly concerned about the death penalty but overall supports it to some degree. If anything, many are more concerned about other issues. Without asking him to clarify, I will with respect not assume he is "making up" stuff, particularly giving his position. Can he be biased? Sure.
Posted by: Joe | Sep 13, 2016 3:46:42 PM