Although nitrogen hypoxia has been known to cause convulsions before death, Oklahoma could use it for executions without the help of any licensed medical professionals, according to the findings of one study.
The study on using nitrogen to carry out death sentences was prepared by professors at East Central University in 2014. Its authors included no medical doctors and conducted no actual first-hand research, but Oklahoma based much of its decision to adopt nitrogen as an execution method on the findings in 2015.
The findings of the East Central University study were reviewed by members of the Oklahoma Legislature in 2014 before later enacting a law to allow for execution by nitrogen hypoxia, but it’s unclear whether the information was considered as part of Oklahoma’s recent decision to develop a protocol using it as the state’s primary execution method.
The study’s authors reviewed articles from Slate.com and The National Review as well YouTube videos of kids inhaling helium until they passed out before preparing the report at the request of former state Rep. Mike Christian.
Most of the study’s findings are based on anecdotal evidence gleaned from cases of assisted suicide using not nitrogen, but helium —another inert gas.
“After the subjects are unconscious, it should be expected some of the subjects will convulse. There is a possibility that subjects will feel euphoria prior to losing consciousness and a slight possibility they will feel a tingling or warm sensation,” the East Central University study found.
Christine Pappas, professor and chair of political science at East Central University, one of the study’s co-authors, said she’s personally against the the death penalty.
Her role was to research if death from nitrogen hypoxia would withstand a U.S. Supreme Court challenge on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Pappas said she ultimately came to the conclusion that the method would found to be legal in the courts.
Pappas said there was an overall lack of medical research on the subject the study’s authors could rely on because of the ethical issues such study would involve.
Many Oklahoma lawmakers had concerns that death from nitrogen wouldn’t actually be painful enough to be much of a punishment for convicted murders, Pappas said.
With Oklahoma’s past history of botched executions by lethal injection, Pappas said she hoped her involvement would at least provide a more humane alternative.
“Oklahomans don’t mind at all if an execution is botched, they think if an execution causes more pain, that’s no problem,” Pappas said. “If Oklahoma is going to execute people and it can be done in a more humane way, then I want to be involved.”
In 2014, Michael Copeland, an assistant professor of criminal justice at East Central University and the study’s lead author, told state lawmakers at a hearing at the Oklahoma Capitol that nitrogen would be an efficient, humane execution method.
According to audio recordings of the meeting, Copeland played state lawmakers a YouTube video of a giggling teenage girl who inhaled helium from a mylar balloon to the point of blacking out.
“I feel light-headed,” the girl says in a helium-induced high-pitched voice before collapsing.
Copeland told the lawmakers that an execution using nitrogen would look similar to the video of the laughing teenager. Death via inert gas inhalation is not from suffocation, but rather a lack of oxygen.
“She doesn’t feel any of the normal anxiety from holding her breath,” Copeland said after playing the YouTube video. “The method of execution proposed is theoretically not much different than what is being mentioned here.”
During the hearing, Christian referred to Copeland as “Dr. Copeland,” although he does not have a medical degree or a PhD. Copeland does hold a juris doctorate and was briefly assistant attorney general for the small island nation the Republic of Pulau in the western Pacific Ocean.
Copeland recommended using restraints or some type of paralyzing agent to keep the condemned from twitching and convulsing during executions.
“That’s the type of thing you’re going to have to deal with if you want to be in this business at all,” he said.
Copeland said he tried to seek input with medical doctors for the study, but those willing to participate later backed out for fear of losing their licenses or hospital privileges.
During the hearing, state lawmakers also watched a BBC television documentary called “How to Kill a Human Being” and heard testimony from a World War II veteran who experienced hypoxia as an airplane pilot flying at high altitude.
In the documentary, British journalist and former Member of Parliament Michael Portillo demonstrates various methods of execution, including electrocuting a pig carcass and simulating a hanging with a crash test dummy.
During the next legislative session, the Oklahoma lawmakers passed a bill allowing the state to use nitrogen as an alternate form of execution if lethal injection was ruled unconstitutional or drugs needed to carry out the procedure were not available.
Copeland did not respond to The Frontier’s request for an interview, but it appears his study has also been cited in a report on execution methods by prison officials in Louisiana — another state that is also considering switching to nitrogen.
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit critical of capital punishment, said nitrogen hypoxia is not even recommended for the euthanasia in animals and questioned some of the East Central University study’s findings.
“I’m not saying nitrogen will or won’t work. What I’m saying is that the supposed study isn’t a study, isn’t science, and certainly isn’t serious science,” Dunham said.
The Oklahoma Department of Corrections declined to answer The Frontier’s questions about whether the East Central University study informed any of the department’s recent decision to make nitrogen the state’s primary execution method.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter told reporters that the state was still in the beginning stages of deciding how to carry out executions using nitrogen.
“The thought is that a mask needs to be developed and that will be a careful, precise process,” Hunter told reporters.
Clarification: This story was updated to reflect that the findings of the East Central University study were reviewed by members of the Oklahoma Legislature in 2014 before later enacting a law to allow for execution by nitrogen hypoxia, but it’s unclear whether the information was considered as part of Oklahoma’s recent decision to develop a protocol using it as the state’s primary execution method.