OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma would become the first state to allow the execution of death row inmates using nitrogen gas under a bill overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday by the House of Representatives.
The House voted 85-10 for the bill by Oklahoma City Republican Rep. Mike Christian, who began studying alternative methods after a botched lethal injection in the spring that led the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s current three-drug method.
Christian said numerous studies have been conducted on nitrogen hypoxia, which is similar to what pilots at high altitudes can encounter when oxygen supplies diminish. He described the method as humane, painless and easy to administer.
“I believe it’s revolutionary,” said Christian, a former Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper and a staunch advocate of the death penalty. “I think it’s the best thing we’ve come up with since the start of executions by the government.”
Christian said prison officials in several other states expressed an interest in his proposal, but he declined to name them.
Rep. Kevin Matthews, who voted against the bill, said he wished the Legislature would spend more time trying to solve such problems as low wages, a lack of affordable health care and poor education outcomes.
“I just don’t have the stomach for looking for new ways to kill people,” said Matthews, a Tulsa Democrat.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where a similar measure passed a committee earlier this year with bipartisan support.
Under the bill, lethal injection would remain the state’s first method of execution, but nitrogen gas would become the second alternative method and be used if injection were declared unconstitutional or if the drugs became unavailable. Under current law, electrocution is the second option, followed by firing squad. The bill would make electrocution the third method, followed by firing squad.
Christian said there would be no need to construct a gas chamber and that the nitrogen could be administered inside a tent or through a secure mask worn by the inmate. He said the problem death penalty states are having securing lethal drugs would be alleviated with the purchase of a nitrogen generator, which would give prison officials an everlasting supply of the ingredient necessary to carry out executions.
Unlike traditional gas chambers that used drugs such as cyanide that caused a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, Christian said breathing nitrogen would be painless because it leads to hypoxia, a gradual lack of oxygen in the blood.
Although some members questioned Christian about how the method would work, there was no debate against the bill.
No state has ever used nitrogen gas or inert gas hypoxia to execute an inmate, and there has not been any reported use of the method in other countries, according to Amnesty International’s most recent report on the death penalty internationally. The 2013 report did note that execution data from China, the nation that executes the most people, is not readily available. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases.
“Without more research, I think this would be a very risky experiment,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center. “This is a human life that’s being tested, and the standard should be much higher than ... one or two people saying, ‘I think this will work.’”
Executions in Oklahoma are on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the state’s lethal injection method. The legal challenge, which was sparked by a botched execution last spring, centers on whether the sedative midazolam properly renders an inmate unconscious before the second and third drugs are administered. Oklahoma officials concede midazolam is not the preferred drug for executions, but death penalty states have been forced to explore alternatives as manufacturers of more effective drugs refuse to sell them for use in lethal injections.