Lethal injections, legal battles and difficulty obtaining drugs have forced a number of states to find alternative ways to carry out the death penalty, reports the New York Times.
Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi have authorized the use of inhaling the inert gas nitrogen for executions.
“An oxygen-deficient atmosphere” can knock a person unconscious after just one or two breaths and “the exposed person has no warning and cannot sense that the oxygen level is too low,” according to a report from the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.
“The safest, the best and the most effective method available,” Mike Hunter, Oklahoma’s attorney general, said about using nitrogen.
The problem is that no one actually knows how safe it is. “If and when states begin carrying out executions with nitrogen, it will amount to the same type of experimentation we see in the different variations of lethal injections,” Jen Moreno of the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic told the New York Times.
Lethal injections were started some 40 years ago and were expected to be more efficient and humane than the electric chair or gas chamber but have failed to consistently deliver on this promise.
“It burns, man,” were the last words of a Georgia inmate executed in May for a 1996 shotgun slaying as he twitched briefly when the lethal injection flowed into his body reported the Associated Press in a May 5 article. He was the second Georgia inmate executed this year.
There are approximately 2,750 inmates on death row in the 31 states and in federal and military prisons according to The New York Times.
Across the nation there were 41 sentences calling for the death penalty in 2017 — 23 executions were carried out during that same period, according to Amnesty International, and 41 additional death penalties sentenced. These figures were the second lowest totals for executions and death sentences recorded in any year since 1991 and 1973, respectively.
Blocked by legal challenges, California has not executed anyone since Clarence Ray Allen in January 2006.
However, that could change in the next governor’s term, after voters approved speeding up the appeals process in 2016 by passing Proposition 66.
While one judge recently lifted an injunction blocking executions, four federal and state lawsuits are pending over the state’s protocol for execution by lethal injection.
Unlike the constitutions in most states, California’s limits a governor’s executive clemency power — governors cannot commute the sentence of an inmate who has two felony convictions unless four of the seven State Supreme Court justices concur. About half of California death row inmates have two or more felonies on their record, experts estimate.
Even if the governor cannot commute a death penalty, California has no current legal avenue to purchase the execution drugs specified in its new procedure: pentobarbital or thiopental. State officials have said they plan to use compounding pharmacies to produce the drugs, although that could invite further litigation, according to experts.
The only gubernatorial candidate who personally supports the death penalty is Assemblyman Travis Allen, an Orange County Republican who vowed in an interview to “clean out this death row in California.”
“I don’t think we’re ever going to see an execution carried out in California because there are too many legal and practical obstacles,” said Natasha Minsker, the director of the ACLU of California Center for Advocacy and Policy in the Mercury News.
For more information, go to the Death Penalty Information Center.
PPI’s “Correctional Control: Incarceration and Supervision by State” is the first report to aggregate data on all types of correctional control nationwide.