Recent news of failed executions attributed to drug effectiveness and increased political pressure on correctional institutions has led to another potentially dangerous innovation for capital punishment. The advocacy of the Pharmaceutical Industry to halt the use of drugs for execution on moral grounds has led to states to search for alternative measures to executions. Oklahoma proposes using nitrogen for all upcoming executions.
Failed executions across the United States have largely been attributed to expiring lethal injection drugs, and negligence on the part of correctional officials. The visible physical struggle experienced by inmates as they were administrated untested lethal injection has led to increased standards and expectations for proposed alternatives to execution. This is exemplified in scrutiny towards Oklahomas recently mishandled execution. The most recent execution taken place in Oklahoma, of inmate Charles Warner in January 2015, attracted major national attention. The execution had taken place for 20 minutes, and the last words to leave the mouth of Warner were, “my body is on fire.” Post execution officials acknowledged that the wrong drug was used during the lethal injection. Scott Pruitt, then the state’s attorney general and now the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency referred to the incident as “careless, cavalier and in some circumstances dismissive of established procedures.” Accountability was achieved as prominent officials stepped down during the investigation that proceeded the incident. Today, Oklahomas inhumane execution translates into increased hurdles and criticism to instituting alternative policies to proceed with executions.
Dale A. Baich, attorney for Oklahoma death-row prisoners challenging the new nitrogen protocol, claims the following, “This method has never been used before and is experimental… Oklahoma is once again asking us to trust it as officials ‘learn-on-the-job,’ through a new execution procedure and method. How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state’s recent history reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes in executions?”
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, further questions the effectiveness of using nitrogen. Dunham claimed that in other instances when using nitrogen to euthanize mammals, the American Veterinary Medical Association deemed the process inappropriate — to euthanize a 70lb pig it would take seven minutes of nitrogen, a length of time incompatible with the promised “few minutes” Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter described nitrogen would need to execute an inmate.
Nitrogen as an execution method is evidently largely untested, untried, and experimental on the human body. However, it is an example of states adopting alternatives to inaccessible lethal injection drugs. Advocates must closely assess the evolution of the legal rational permitting alternative execution methods across the United States. The NCADP will persist to inform our members of the evolution of lethal executions in the United States.
-- Jacqueline Lantsman