Alabama lawmakers in March voted to authorize a method of execution that has never been used before—inert gas asphyxiation.
Lawmakers say this alternative method is a more humane way to carry out capital punishment. It works by directing the inmate to breathe inert gas as opposed to oxygen. Examples of such gases include helium, methane and nitrogen.
Perhaps that’s why 51 of Alabama’s 180 death row inmates have signed statements indicating their preference for that gas as opposed to a lethal injection or the electric chair.
Some may say this represents a leap into the unknown, but according to John Palombi, an attorney with the Federal Defenders Program, “the uncertain- ties of nitrogen gas” trump what he thinks is the “known torture” of other execution methods.
An example of such torture took place in 2016, when Ronald Smith Jr.’s attorney witnessed him coughing and heaving for more than 10 minutes in the gas chamber. Smith’s movement showed he was not anesthetized at any point during the agonizingly long procedure.
Others, however, believe the uncertainty behind such a new procedure may cause more harm.
“This is entirely experimental,” said Randall Marshall, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. “It is the epitome of cruel (and unusual punishment) because it is experimenting on human beings.”
State Senator Cam Ward said he believes some inmates agreed to nitrogen gas because of the foreseeable, lengthy legal challenges. He added that it could possibly be a way for prisoners to avoid the death penalty.
Ward also attributes the fact that inmates are opting for this alternative method of execution to fear. According to the Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, lethal injections involve drugs that, if given incorrectly, can result in suffering “I think they’ve seen stories of where the three-drug cocktail lethal injection has failed and there’s that fear of it being a botched process as opposed to nitrogen,” Ward said.
The executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, Robert Dunham, said that he expects there will be considerable litigation regarding nitrogen asphyxiation. In Oklahoma, which announced in March that nitrogen gas would be the primary method of execution, officials have begun constructing a set of protocols to use the gas because there has been an issue of obtaining legal injection drugs.
In Mississippi the method has been approved, but only in the event that lethal injections have been ruled unconstitutional or are unavailable.
In Alabama, the most recent state to consider this alternative method, litigation over the state’s lethal injection method ended because inmates
chose the nitrogen gas process.
The lawsuit that challenged lethal injections was dismissed.