Editorial: Gas chambers are cruel and unusual

AlternativePunishmentIn response to a shortage of drugs used in lethal injection, several states that wish to executions as punishment are looking at alternatives — one being the gas chamber.

This past week, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin signed into a law a measure that would institute the nitrogen-backed gas chamber, a law currently pending approval from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fallin said she believes ”capital punishment must be performed effectively and without cruelty,” and the bill she signed gives Oklahoma another death penalty option that meets that standard.

But considering execution by gas chambers in the past have caused asphyxiation to inmates, often leaving them gasping for breath for in some instances almost 20 minutes, Fallin is severely mistaken.

Over the past year, a number of capital punishment cases employing lethal injection have come under the national spotlight.

This is primarily because trials using lethal, experimental drug cocktails have been deemed unsuccessful. Last year, Joseph Wood, an inmate convicted and sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of his ex-girlfriend and her father, was injected 15 times with a lethal dose of drugs.

A procedure which y should have been completed with one dose was protracted to almost two hours. Witnesses who were at Wood’s execution said Wood spent over an hour of the execution “gasping and snorting.”

An attorney for Wood said although he is not sure whether or not he suffered, one thing is certain: the first attempt was unsuccessful.

One of the prevailing reasons for using these “experimental” chemicals is the fact that many states that still use capital punishment are running out of the drugs for  lethal injection.

Texas’ state department confirmed last month that the state only had enough dosage for one lethal injection left. Europe supplies the U.S. with many of these drugs. Europe has placed an embargo on the drugs pentobarbital and sodium thiopental, which are commonly used for lethal injection, so many states are facing the same lack of drugs.

Catherine Ashton, who served as the vice president of the European Commission at the time the embargo was passed, said it was passed as part of the European Union’s wider effort to eradicate the death penalty nationwide, according to an article published by The Independent.

The gas chamber was a form of execution last used in the U.S. in Arizona in 1999. Since then, lethal injection has been the primary means for corporal punishment.

Although the Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of the gas chamber, several legal experts argue that the use of the chamber violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1996, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by U.S. District Judge Marilyn H. Patel in San Francisco three years earlier, who stated in her decision that the gas chamber was “inhumane and has no place in civilized society.”

At the heart of the issue lies one question: Does the person being executed feel pain during the gas chamber execution? This was the basis of the switch for many states from electric chairs and gas chambers to lethal injections.

Fallin claims that these nitrogen-based gas chambers will have a similar effect that proponents of lethal injection used to champion the penalty.

Hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide have been used in the past for the gas chamber. Fallin says nitrogen gas would cause the person being executed to fall unconscious almost immediately, therefore rendering the execution in a sense, humane.

Dr. Joel Zivot, however, says it is “ethically impossible” to reach a conclusion on execution procedures, since medicine does not position itself to intentionally take a life.

Zivot, who is the assistant professor of anesthesiology and surgery at Emory University School of Medicine, said, “There’s no therapeutic use of nitrogen gas, and there’s no way to ethically or practically test if nitrogen gas is a humane alternative,” in an interview with the Huffington Post.

If scientists were to “test” an individual to see whether or not they experienced pain during the procedure, there would be no way to tell whether or not the deceased person experienced pain. It’s a no-win situation.

It is not clear whether or not the death penalty should be abolished completely.

There are several arguments for and against the form of punishment that are at the very least worth considering.

However, if a state is to employ capital punishment as a means of punishing individuals who commit heinous crimes, there needs to be a complete assurance that the the means of execution is humane.

Otherwise, another method should be used. The nitrogen-based gas chamber method does not meet that criterion and should not be employed.