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June 1, 2018

Making the case against nitrogen as an execution method

Download (14)Charles Blanke, an oncologist and professor of medicine, has this notable new commentary in Newsweek headlined "Death by nitrogen should not be america's new capital punishment method." Here are excerpts:

Ever since the first recorded state punishment, when the Jamestown colony executed a Spanish spy by firing squad more than 400 years ago, Americans have tinkered with the technologies used to kill condemned prisoners....  Since 2015, three states, Oklahoma, Alabama and Mississippi, trying to improve upon the current methods of execution in America — gas chamber, hanging and lethal injectio n— have added nitrogen gas asphyxiation to their capital punishment arsenals.

Nitrogen, which makes up about 78% of the air we breathe, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas used in a broad commercial range that includes ceramics manufacturing and steelmaking.  While it is not poisonous, breathing in pure nitrogen keeps the brain from getting enough oxygen, which itself is directly fatal.  In fact, a number of lethal industrial accidents involving inhaled nitrogen are reported every year.  Though its potential use in executions has not been formally studied, advocates have already suggested legal death via nitrogen inhalation would be quick, peaceful, and humane.

We need to ask three questions about the possible use of nitrogen in capital punishment cases.  Would it work? Does it offer advantages over current methods? And, is it cruel and unusual, violating the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? The answers are yes, maybe, and we don’t know (but probably yes).

Though it has not yet been used in a death penalty case, there is no doubt using nitrogen to execute prisoners would be highly effective.  Placed into a pure nitrogen environment, the convict would be unconscious within a minute (possibly even after a breath or two) and would be dead soon after.  Its failure rate, that is, cases in which the prisoner survives, would likely be much lower than what we see with current death penalty methods.

The second question, whether or not using nitrogen is better than what we currently do, is harder to answer. We need to be cautious in adopting new methods for use in capital punishment cases.  Every technique embraced to date, no matter what advantages they were thought to offer in theory, has been fraught with real-life shortcomings, ranging from modest to heinous.  Convicts in the electric chair have burst into flames, or required multiple jolts. The gas chamber, adopted by 12 states as being humane, fails in five percent of cases, with some prisoners observed to gasp for air for prolonged periods. Others have convulsed.

Lethal injection, the go-to procedure in every state with a capital punishment provision, has the highest fail rate of any method, exceeding seven percent. It can require multiple needle pokes to access veins in prisoners scarred from drug abuse or chronic illness, and one recent botched execution attempt in Alabama reportedly led to profuse bleeding and a punctured bladder....

There are many unanswered questions on what could go wrong with nitrogen use. If prisons forced the convicts to wear a tight fitting mask, would this increase the feeling of suffocation?  Could they still leak?  Or, would an entire room need to be filled with pure nitrogen? Would accidental dilution with oxygen-containing room air (mask or room) slow or even prevent death, leaving prisoners in comas or brain-damaged?

Also, nitrogen use isn’t medically regulated, and it’s hard to imagine much quality control would be applied to inspecting the gas used in death penalty cases.  What happens if prisons buy contaminated product?  Finally, would the nitrogen manufacturers take their cue from those making medications used in lethal injection and restrict sales to penitentiaries?...

Humans normally breathe in life-sustaining oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide produced during respiration.  Choking victims, who cannot get enough oxygen, say it is agonizing.  Supporters of using nitrogen in capital punishment cases believe the feeling of suffocation actually comes not from lack of oxygen (known as hypoxia), but from the buildup of carbon dioxide.  Since prisoners could still blow off carbon dioxide while breathing pure nitrogen, advocates say they wouldn’t suffer from air hunger.

What if they are wrong? Some studies suggest that fatal low oxygen levels alone do cause anxiety and the fear of suffocation.  And, it wouldn’t actually matter, even if they are right.  Hypoxia itself can cause severe nausea, disorientation, confusion, dizziness, inability to move, and seizures, regardless of what the carbon dioxide levels are doing.

Nitrogen gas doesn’t put people to sleep as do the medicines used in anesthesia, so prisoners could be painfully aware.  To be sure, sedating them first would prevent any distress from the hypoxia, but it would leave all the other problems associated with lethal injection.

It should be noted that nitrogen was previously used to kill animals, but it’s not a method that’s used anymore—the American Veterinary Medical Association does not recommend nitrogen euthanasia because evidence suggests gassed dogs and cats can actually suffer horribly before dying. Determining in advance whether or not nitrogen asphyxiation offers a “peaceful” death is impossible. We don’t have a lot of interviews with survivors of industrial nitrogen accidents, and experimentation is unethical—we can’t partly gas convicts and ask them how it went.

If our old-fashioned methods are not ideal, and nitrogen asphyxiation is not proven humane, are there other alternatives? Yes. I testified in hearing where the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama recently ruled in the case of Doyle Lee Hamm that oral drugs used medically in states allowing terminally ill patients to take their own lives — “death with dignity”. This method could lawfully be employed in capital punishment cases. Though Alabama still ultimately tried (unsuccessfully) to use standard intravenous injection following the legal action spawning that ruling, medications given by mouth are under consideration in death penalty cases elsewhere in the south....

Capital punishment remains constitutional, and it isn’t going away any time soon.  However, our Supreme Court has ruled the death penalty cannot involve unnecessary or wanton infliction of pain, and that there must be a constitutional means of applying it.  We need to put more thought into the methods used, especially since there are no means to scientifically test in advance whether or not they violate the Eighth Amendment.  We don’t and can’t know that nitrogen asphyxiation would be painless, and it simply doesn’t qualify as an acceptable means of carrying out a death sentence.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 1, 2018 at 11:30 AM | Permalink


The demand for the perfect death is pretextual, and more phony obstructionism. I have come to support the Italian Death Penalty. Put the condemned in population and wave a carton of cigarettes. He can be stabbed multiple times. Them, investigate the incident, and conclude, he committed suicide.

Most of us, who have not committed murder will have prolonged, painful, and humiliating death. Illegal aliens will be wiping out butts at the end. Murderers do not deserve perfection.

The article is a silly ipse dixit by a left wing ideologue, published in a left wing propaganda, pro-criminal outlet.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 1, 2018 11:59:23 AM

DB has got a Damaged Brain and therefore is a nasty liar.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Jun 1, 2018 12:15:35 PM

What about the self evident? Get a junky from the prison to hit a vein with carfentanyl. They are experts. The condemned will be dispatched happy and high.

One notes Claudio has bad names for me, but not any fact in rebuttal of the Italian Death Penalty. It has even been condemned by a human right organization, which is a great endorsement.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 1, 2018 12:40:13 PM


Posted by: Joe | Jun 1, 2018 12:43:49 PM

The fact that it was discontinued for animal euthanasia suggests it is not free of suffering. Whether it's better than the current method is not settled, but this does seem to be a significant counter-argument.

Posted by: Erik M | Jun 1, 2018 2:19:57 PM

@eric M

I learned a long time ago that I do have time or energy to correct every outrageous lie on the internet but since you referenced one let me correct this particular lie.


Is the link to the actual AVMA recommendation of nitrogen in the killing of animals. Turn to page 23-24

(1) It is false to say, as the article does say, that nitrogen is no longer used to kill animals. The AVMA specifically allows its use for the killing of birds and the last time I checked birds are animals. What the author should have said is that the AVMA no longer recommends it for the use of killing of mammals, a specific kind of animal. This lie of comission is important because:

(2) The AVMA based it recommendation for mammals based upon studies involving rats, and specifically notes that rats are unusually sensitive to changes in air composition. Further, the specific technique they used to kill rats would not be the same procedure that is proposed for use in humans. In short, the AVMA by its own admission used an especially sensitive species and used a different technique so it is not at all clear that the results are relevant. Leaving all of this out is a lie of omission.

(3) Contrary to the article's suggestion, inert gas has been used by many people to commit suicide and has been well vetted by Exit International. To be sure, they prefer helium over nitrogen but that is because helium is easier for the lay person to get their hands on. So there is plenty of experience in humans (as opposed to rats) that the article completely ignores.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 1, 2018 3:47:14 PM

A passage that specifically says "does not recommend nitrogen euthanasia because evidence suggests gassed dogs and cats can actually suffer horribly before dying" to the half-way disconcerting reader at least implies somewhat that all animals might not apply. Why mention a specific animal? Outrageous lie!

A common summary of this method is framed this way:

"Veterinary experts generally do not recommend nitrogen or other inert gases for euthanizing mammals. Responses to the gas vary according to species, and in its 2013 guidelines, the American Veterinary Medical Association said, “Current evidence indicates this method is unacceptable because animals may experience distressing side effects before loss of consciousness.”


Multiple articles have that quote though cannot find a direct source. It would be interesting to ask the writer directly about it since he has studied the matter. Before calling what he wrote "outrageous lies," I will just be agnostic.

The "mammal" part is more correct but how misleading it otherwise is far from clear.

It is noted that rats are different. How does this specifically apply? I don't know -- a rat isn't a dog or cat either, but they aren't gassed. Rats are different from humans in various respects but rats are standard test animals for human activities in a range of ways. This doesn't mean use of a medicine tested, e.g., is used in the same way. If mammals, not just rats, are at risk, it is a red flag.

In a short article, nuances like that are not generally likely to be discussed. Something like that could be expanded on when he testifies in court. So, yes, it is useful to be a careful reader in that respect.

BTW, maybe we can't trust him as some sort of 'abolitionist.' No method would be okay for him. No. He provides an alternative -- oral drug.

Those willingly committing suicide also seems to me an inexact comparison. The various concerns cited in the article are not refuted. Nor is he the only one who studied the matter who were concerned. The NYT article comes from it from various angles at any rate.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 1, 2018 8:19:24 PM

Joe. A murderer wants to live, as evidenced by decades of approved appeals. Explain how you will get him to swallow a lethal dose of medication. Say, the lethal dose is thirty capsules. We offer to wash it down with expensive champagne.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 1, 2018 9:07:15 PM

Brain Damaged is speaking about things he doesn't know nor understand. There is NOT any Italian death penalty. There are some suicide and a very few homicides in our prisons, as everywere. I suggest a forcible internment in a psychiatric facility.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Jun 4, 2018 9:15:31 AM

Why are opioids not used? It seems that fentanyl and, ahem, diamorphine have such narrow windows of pharmacologic efficacy that overdosing is rather easy. Or are there bad aspects to death by opioid of which I'm (blessedly, I guess) unaware?

Posted by: Ed Unneland | Jun 6, 2018 9:12:58 PM

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