Alabama has devised a way around the efforts by anti-death penalty advocates to restrict access to the toxic chemicals used to euthanize convicted murderers who have been sentenced to death: nitrogen hypoxia.
The air we breathe is primarily comprised on nitrogen already. The composition is roughly 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% “other”. Under a new law enacted by the Alabama legislature, death row inmates have been given options in the method of their execution that include oxygen deprivation, and this weekend the results have been made public. According to the Associated Press, of the 180 inmates sentenced to death in Alabama, 51 have signed statements indicating they would prefer death by nitrogen.
In theory, what would happen is that the prisoner would be placed in an enclosed room where nitrogen is slowly pumped in and oxygen removed. This would result in the prisoner falling asleep due to oxygen deprivation and, afterward, catastrophic failure of the brain and other organs.
Hypoxia is far from a new form of death. People have been committing suicide by car exhaust for decades, and many homes carry carbon monoxide detectors for fear of furnace leaks. The effects of lack of oxygen, both gradual and sudden, have been well-documented.
Its use as a death penalty mechanism is new, however. The exact details, such as the rate of gas removal, are as yet untested. The lack of prior testing has been seized by lawyers to challenge the use of nitrogen, which in turn has given those who have signed for hypoxia an expectation of further appeals.
If the law withstands the challenges, it would radically diminish the effectiveness of activists’ work against the death penalty, as states would have an alternative when pharmaceutical companies restrict states’ access to lethal drugs.
Oklahoma and Mississippi have bills under consideration which would present nitrogen gas as a death penalty option. Whether they progress will likely depend on the outcome of the expected court cases.