The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arizona plans to execute prisoners with a lethal gas the Nazis used at Auschwitz

A fence surrounds the state prison in Florence, Ariz., in 2014. (AP)
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Arizona is taking steps to use hydrogen cyanide, the deadly gas used during the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis at Auschwitz and other extermination camps, to kill inmates on death row.

Corrections officials have refurbished a gas chamber that hasn’t been used in more than 20 years and have procured ingredients for the lethal gas, also known as Zyklon B, according to partially redacted documents obtained by the Guardian. Invoices show that the state purchased a brick of potassium cyanide, sodium hydroxide pellets and sulfuric acid, and a report details the considerable efforts taken to deem the gas chamber at a prison in Florence, Ariz., “operationally ready.”

Critics of the gas method say that in addition to hydrogen cyanide’s infamous use in the mass killings of Jewish people by the Nazis, it has produced some of the most botched, disturbing executions in the United States.

“You have to wonder what Arizona was thinking in believing that in 2021 it is acceptable to execute people in a gas chamber with cyanide gas,” Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, told the British outlet. “Did they have anybody study the history of the Holocaust?”

In a statement, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry said it was “prepared to perform its legal obligation and commence the execution process as part of the legally imposed sentence, regardless of method selected.” The department pointed to the Arizona statute allowing a defendant sentenced to death for a crime committed before November 23, 1992 to choose between lethal injection or lethal gas at least 20 days before the execution date.

There is little medical research about lethal gas’s effects on the human body, but executions using gas have taken much longer than other methods, according to Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno.

“It’s without question that lethal gas, or at least the lethal gas that Arizona is trying to bring back, is the most gruesome of all these methods we’ve had in this country,” Denno told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Arizona, one of 27 states where the death penalty remains legal, postponed executions after the execution of Joseph R. Wood III in 2014 by lethal injection, which prompted a review of the death chamber protocols.

Although states’ enforcement of capital punishment has dwindled in recent years, the Trump administration set a record for executions after a 17-year federal hiatus. President Biden has supported eliminating the federal death penalty through legislation. Public support for capital punishment has dwindled, according to Gallup polls.

Arizona’s preparation to use lethal gas comes amid a scarcity of execution drugs and as other states have taken a closer look at firing squads and other execution methods.

South Carolina could force death row inmates to choose between electric chair, firing squad

Lethal gas is permitted for executions in six other states: Alabama, California, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wyoming. Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama have authorized nitrogen hypoxia, which uses nitrogen to deprive the body of oxygen, despite a small body of scientific research and no previous executions using the method in the United States.

In Arizona, where 115 inmates are on death row, hydrogen cyanide has been deployed before. The state has killed 37 people with lethal gas, most before 1950. Since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted its moratorium on the death penalty in 1976, the state has executed two inmates with gas, most recently in 1999, according to state records.

In those cases, witnesses recounted excruciating deaths.

Convicted murderer Don Eugene Harding, who was put to death in 1992, was red-faced and gasping to breathe, his attorney James J. Belanger detailed in a written declaration. As the white fumes enveloped him, Harding twitched and jerked for minutes, longer than Belanger anticipated, the attorney wrote.

“They were the most excoriatingly painful eight minutes of my life,” Belanger wrote.

The 1999 execution of German national Walter LaGrand, who was convicted of armed robbery, took even longer, a witness noted in an account published in the Tucson Citizen. LaGrand died 18 minutes after cyanide pellets were dropped into acid below his chair, enveloping him in a mist of deadly vapor that rose, “much like steam in a shower,” the witness wrote.

After LaGrand coughed violently and fell forward, his back continued to rise and fall with shallow breaths and his head twitched for minutes before he was declared dead, according to the account.

LaGrand was the last inmate killed in the gas chamber that officials say has since been restored.

According to the documents obtained by the Guardian, there were “significant concerns” about the rubber seals throughout the vessel because of their age. Tests used water, a smoke grenade and a more primitive review to ensure the chamber was airtight: Workers passed a candle slowly over spaces including doors and windows, watching to see whether the flame flickered.

As the state readies for renewed use of the gas chamber, execution dates have not been set for convicted murderers Clarence Dixon and Frank Atwood. Their attorneys expressed concerns about the little information the state has shared.

“We are deeply concerned that Arizona is even considering a plan to carry out executions using lethal gas,” federal public defender Dale Baich, who represents Dixon, told The Post. “California’s lethal gas protocol was held unconstitutional many years ago, and Arizona should not be taking this gratuitous and dangerous turn to the past.”

“Frank Atwood is prepared to die,” his attorney Joseph Perkovich told the Guardian. “He is a man of Greek Orthodox faith and is preparing for this moment. But he does not want to be tortured and subjected to a botched execution.”

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