Oklahoma will become the first state in the nation to make nitrogen gas its primary execution method.
In the face of a nationwide shortage of execution drugs, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said Wednesday the state has decided inhalation of inert gas is its best option for carrying out death sentences.
“We can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait for drugs,” Hunter said.
Although nitrogen has never been used in a state-sanctioned execution before, it has been used effectively in assisted suicide, Hunter said. Assisted suicide is illegal in Oklahoma.
Death by nitrogen asphyxiation is believed to be quick and humane, Hunter said. Nitrogen is also abundant, cheap and easy to obtain.
Citing information form the U.S. Air Force Flight Surgeon’s Guide, Hunter said exposure to inert gas like nitrogen can induce dizziness, fatigue, headache, loss of breath and euphoria.
“This is the safest, best, most effective method and we’re moving forward, Hunter said.
Hunter said he spoke with the families of victims of some death row inmates before making the announcement.
Oklahoma’s indefinite stay on executions has left the loved ones and family members of murder victims without closure, he said.
“They are ready to move on with their lives and until justice is meted out, they don’t feel they can,” Hunter said.
Many states, including Oklahoma, have struggled to find sources of lethal injection drugs in recent years as pharmaceutical companies have refused to supply them for executions.
Joe Allbaugh, director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said he has searched as far away as the Indian subcontinent for a legal, reliable source of execution drugs, but to no avail.
Death row inmates have also begun to go to great lengths to derail the lethal injection process, Allbaugh said. Some inmates have refused to drink water in the days leading up to their execution date to make it harder to find a viable vein to inject the drugs, he said.
“The victims of death row inmates have waited long enough for justice,” Allbaugh said.
Oklahoma has already put the legal framework into place to change its primary execution method.
Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill into law in April 2015 allowing the state state to execute prisoners using nitrogen gas if death by lethal injection is found to be unconstitutional or of execution drugs become unavailable.
Death by firing squad and electric chair are also on the books as approved methods in Oklahoma.
Dale Baich, one of the attorneys representing Oklahoma death row prisons in a method of execution lawsuit questioned whether the state had done enough research on the safety and legality of using nitrogen gas.
“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,” Baich said in a statement. “How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state’s recent history reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes in executions?”
Executions in Oklahoma have been stayed indefinitely since October 2015 as the state reviews its protocols in the wake of two botched executions and another that was almost carried out using the wrong drug.
Oklahoma Death Row Inmate Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack about 40 minutes into his execution in 2014 and was observed to mumble and lift his head up from a gurney during the ordeal.
One witness described the scene as a “bloody mess,” after many failed attempts to locate a vein in Lockett’s body to carry out the execution, according to court filings.
Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in January 2015 using potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride, the final drug in Oklahoma’s three-step lethal injection process.
Just hours before the scheduled execution of death row inmate Richard Glossip in September 2015, staff at Oklahoma State Penitentiary opened a sealed box to find that it also contained the wrong drug.
Glossip is still on death row — having ordered three last meals before receiving multiple last-minute stays of execution.
Oklahoma has 49 death row inmates, including 16 who have exhausted all appeals and are awaiting an execution date.
A multicounty grand jury in 2016 found that Oklahoma Department of Corrections was following a “vague and poorly drafted” protocol, which happens to be the same “revised” protocol that the state spent months studying and revamping in the wake of the 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett.
Allbaugh said he did not know yet what alterations would have to be made to the Oklahoma’s death chamber to accommodate executions by nitrogen gas.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” he said.
The Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty issued the following statement late Wednesday:
“We are concerned that Oklahoma is now pursuing a mode of execution that has not been tried anywhere before.” said Rev. Don Heath, OK-CADP chair. “We do not know what kind of trials on human guinea pigs will be done. We are not familiar with the data that Attorney General Mike Hunter referred to about its use in assisted suicides. We are hopeful that the court challenges will take years and that executions will continue to be on hold until the appeals are completed. The move to nitrogen hypoxia apparently is based on the pragmatic recognition that reputable doctors and pharmacists will not supply the drugs needed to participate in lethal injection because it violates the Hippoocratic Oath to do no harm. Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh said that he had to go to the backstreets of the Indian subcontinent to find drugs.”