Nitrogen gas execution bill heading to governor

2015-04-09 22:06
Death chamber. (Kiichiro Sato, AP, file)

Death chamber. (Kiichiro Sato, AP, file)

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Oklahoma City - Oklahoma is poised to become the first US state to allow the use of nitrogen gas to execute inmates under a plan given final legislative approval on Thursday and now headed to the governor's desk.

Without a single dissenting vote, the Oklahoma Senate approved legislation that would allow the new method to be used if lethal injection is ruled unconstitutional or if the deadly drugs become unavailable.

Republican Governor Mary Fallin is a staunch supporter of the death penalty, but her spokesperson declined to comment on the measure on Thursday.

Executions are on hold in Oklahoma while the US Supreme Court considers whether the state's current three-drug method of lethal injection is constitutional.

Oklahoma and other states have scrambled to find new drugs after manufacturers of more effective drugs stopped selling them to states for executions.

There are no reports of nitrogen gas ever being used to execute humans. But supporters of Oklahoma's plan argue that nitrogen-induced hypoxia - or a lack of oxygen in the blood - is a humane and painless method of execution that requires no medical expertise to perform.

"The process is fast and painless," said Oklahoma City Representative Republican Mike Christian, a former Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper who wrote the bill. "It's foolproof."

Opponents are concerned there isn't enough evidence to ensure the new method is painless and effective.

"It just hasn't been tried, so we don't know," said Representative Emily Virgin, a Democrat from Norman who is opposed to the death penalty.

The changes come in the wake of a botched execution in Oklahoma last year. The state was using a new sedative as the first in a three-drug combination to execute an inmate when state officials tried to halt the lethal injection after the inmate writhed on the gurney and moaned. He died 43 minutes after the process began.

The problematic execution was blamed on a poorly placed intravenous line and prompted a lawsuit from Oklahoma death row inmates, who argue that the state's new drug combination presents a serious risk of pain and suffering. The US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in that case later this month.

Lethal injection would remain the state's primary execution method, but nitrogen gas would be the state's first backup method ahead of the electric chair, which the state hasn't used since 1966, and a firing squad, which has never been used in an Oklahoma execution.

Other death penalty states also are looking at alternatives to lethal injection. Tennessee passed a law last year to reinstate the electric chair if it can't get lethal drugs, and Utah has reinstated the firing squad as a backup method.

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