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May 7, 2018

Examining whether nitrogen gas could be a viable new method for executions

538143779The New York Times has this extended new article about the latest innovation in execution methods under the headline "States Turn to an Unproven Method of Execution: Nitrogen Gas."   The piece is worth reading in full, and here are excerpts:

Hamstrung by troubles with lethal injection — gruesomely botched attempts, legal battles and growing difficulty obtaining the drugs — states are looking for alternative ways to carry out the death penalty. High on the list for some is a method that has never been used before: inhaling nitrogen gas.

Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi have authorized nitrogen for executions and are developing protocols to use it, which represents a leap into the unknown.  There is no scientific data on executing people with nitrogen, leading some experts to question whether states, in trying to solve old problems, may create new ones....

In March, Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter, said that using nitrogen was “the safest, the best and the most effective method available.”  There is scant scientific data to back up that statement. What little is known about human death by nitrogen comes from industrial and medical accidents and its use in suicide.  In accidents, when people have been exposed to high levels of nitrogen and little air in an enclosed space, they have died quickly.  In some cases co-workers who rushed in to rescue them also collapsed and died.

Nitrogen itself is not poisonous, but someone who inhales it, with no air, will pass out quickly, probably in less than a minute, and die soon after — from lack of oxygen.  The same is true of other physiologically inert gases, including helium and argon, which kill only by replacing oxygen....

(Although nitrogen itself would be novel, gas chambers have existed as an American execution method since the 1920s. The last case was in 1999, when Arizona used clouds of hydrogen cyanide to execute an inmate.  Coughing and hacking, he took 18 minutes to die.)

Death from nitrogen is thought to be painless.  It should prevent the condition that causes feelings of suffocation: the buildup of carbon dioxide from not being able to exhale.  Humans are highly sensitive to carbon dioxide — too much brings on the panicky feeling of not being able to breathe.  Somewhat surprisingly, the lack of oxygen doesn’t trigger that same reflex.  Someone breathing pure nitrogen can still exhale carbon dioxide and therefore should not have the sensation of smothering.  Before passing out, a person may feel lightheaded, dizzy or maybe even a bit euphoric, and vision may dim.

Dr. Charles D. Blanke, who has studied data on physician-assisted dying, said it was not at all clear that nitrogen inhalation would bring a peaceful death.  Dr. Blanke, a medical oncologist and professor at Oregon Health and Science University, said he had consulted colleagues in pulmonary medicine and anesthesiology, and they had concerns that carbon dioxide actually could build up and cause feelings of suffocation....

Unlike lethal injection, the use of nitrogen would not require that the execution team dig around for a vein.  An anesthesiologist, who requested anonymity because medical societies bar members from participating in executions or providing information to encourage them, said that nitrogen inhalation was less cruel than lethal injection.  And since it presumably would involve no paralytic agent, witnesses would be able to see whether the person seemed to be suffering, he said.  Seizures might occur from inhaling nitrogen, he said. But if the technique appears to go smoothly, he predicted that other states would quickly adopt it. 

In fact, according to state documents, in May of 2016, an Arizona company sent a sales-pitch letter for nitrogen gas executions to Nebraska corrections officials. Among the standout features of its Euthypoxia Chamber: It “produces calm and sedation followed by inebriation and euphoria;” it “requires no medical expertise;” and it guarantees “the demise of any mammalian life in 4 minutes.” In passing along the letter to another official, a state corrections department executive hand-wrote: “I’m not intending to respond — just thought it was an odd correspondence.”

Ms. Moreno, of the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic, said that implementing nitrogen gas is not as simple as states suggest.  There are different grades of nitrogen, including medical and industrial, she said, with commensurate purities and regulations.  Observers of the execution would need protection.  Officials would have to figure out how to safely clear nitrogen from the room before a physician could declare death and the staff could remove the body.

The Final Exit Network, a volunteer organization that supports the rights of people with terminal illness or intractable suffering to end their lives, considers nitrogen inhalation a reasonable method, and directs people to information about it.  The technique involves putting a plastic bag over one’s head and pumping in nitrogen.  Janis Landis, president of the network, said: “The science behind inert gases is quite well settled. Any inert gas, one can breathe it in, in place of oxygen. You don’t have air hunger.  You can keep breathing. You pass out and you die.”

A few (of many) prior related posts:

May 7, 2018 at 09:10 PM | Permalink


The Shape of the Offender’s Neck
A Life for a Life? The Problem of Capital Punishment,
Sir Ernest Gowers, published by Chattoand Windus, London page 12

In 1886 a Committee was appointed to inquire into the way in which executions were carried out and the causes which in several recent cases had either led to failure or to unseemly occurrences and to make recommendations how they might be avoided. Present practice is based on the Report of that Committee. The essentials for success are a thickish rope, a knot precisely placed under the left ear, and a length of drop adjusted to the weight of the prisoner. Since these precautions were taken, there is no record in the Home Office of any failure or mishap in connection with an execution, and in the opinion of that Department execution by hanging, as now carried out, can be regarded as speedy and certain. But among murderers condemned to death there are occasionally some whose physical condition makes it undesirable that the execution should take place because it could not be done in a seemly manner, or “because some scandalous thing might happen-a person’s head might come off because the jaw was shot away or some other gruesome development might happen which would shock public opinion rather than show that the law has been vindicated.”
In such cases the prisoner must be reprieved, for it is illegal to carry out an execution in any other way. They are less rare than might be expected: in 1949 there had been five in the preceding fifteen years. A future student of the strange customs of the natives of Britain in the twentieth century will find few that will seem to him more quaint than that the decision between the death penalty and a less severe punishment should sometimes have depended not on the gravity of the offense but on the shape of the offender’s neck.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | May 8, 2018 8:34:11 AM

"Dr. Charles D. Blanke, who has studied data on physician-assisted dying, said it was not at all clear that nitrogen inhalation would bring a peaceful death."

No. This time it will be the solution.

Posted by: Joe | May 8, 2018 9:43:52 AM

Claudio. 90% of us will endure a slow, painful, and humiliating death. Our organs will have a cascade of failure, but slowly. Medical care will inflict agonies over months or years, and at an average cost of $250,000 for end of life care. Illegal aliens will be cleaning us up.

Why should vicious murderers have a perfect death?

Why? Because this false standard generates $billions in death penalty appellate lawyer income. The Supreme Court will never abolish the death penalty. It will continue to limit its scope and fine tune it to maintain the death penalty appellate business. Congress must step in, abolish the death penalty .That way, we can have an unfettered Italian Death Penalty.

There is a dose response curve to all remedies. Too little does not work. Too much is toxic. The small number and long delays of executions insure they have no effect on the crime rate.

But again, technology will achieve what the lawyer profession cannot. Chinese carfentanyl will eliminate crime from this country. Almost all the overdose deaths are of addicts. They each commit 200 crimes a year.

Claudio, you will be pleased to know carfentanyl does provide a peaceful, quiet, painless death. It is the perfect death so few of us will experience. The system should learn. Hire addicts to find veins. Use carfentanyl, purchased over the internet by a prison, and delivered by Federal Express or by the US Post Office. Carfentanyl for executions would address your valid concerns about cruelty.

Posted by: David Behar | May 8, 2018 11:50:11 AM

DB is an idiot without hope.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | May 8, 2018 12:25:18 PM

CG: Che cosa ho detto che non ti piace?

Posted by: David Behar | May 8, 2018 1:56:40 PM

Hai detto ... CHE SEI SCEMOOOOOOO !!!!!!

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | May 8, 2018 3:38:18 PM

Stesso per voiiiiiiiiiiii1!!!!!!

Posted by: David Behar | May 8, 2018 5:38:03 PM

15.000 murders. 10.000 solved. Of them 5.000 death eligible. Less than 50 capital sentences and, in 10 – 20 – 30 years or more … 5 executions. I call it cruelty, idiocy, stupidity and inequality.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | May 10, 2018 3:41:40 PM

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