Cruel and unusual? Oklahoma officials want to use nitrogen gas for executions
04/12/2018 // Frances Bloomfield // Views

After months of being denied the drugs needed for lethal injections, the state of Oklahoma will turn to nitrogen gas instead. This will make it the first U.S. state to carry out the death penalty through this method.

The announcement was made at a news conference by Oklahoma State Attorney General Mike Hunter and Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh. Speaking before reporters, Hunter said that everything was still in the preliminary stage as there are no known execution protocols on nitrogen gas usage. Once finalized, however, the primary method of execution would be nitrogen hypoxia, or asphyxiation by breathing in physiologically inert gases.

An odorless and colorless gas, nitrogen makes up a massive portion of the air breathed in by humans. Nitrogen becomes extremely dangerous on its own. According to, pure nitrogen kills by displacing oxygen in the lungs. This, in turn, can lead to unconsciousness in the span of one or two breaths. Within five minutes, brain cells will begin to die off due to oxygen deprivation, and death can follow soon after.

Nitrogen hypoxia most often applied to self-administered and assisted suicide by way of a suicide bag. Also known as an exit bag, this euthanasia device consists of a plastic bag and a drawcord. "Nitrogen hypoxia has been studied as a means of suicide and as it relates to pilots for decades and its benefits are it’s not a complicated medical procedure, nor does it require pharmaceuticals that might be restricted in supply," Michael Copeland, assistant professor of criminology at East Central University in Ada, explained to


The promise of a rapid demise is what prompted Oklahoma legislators to endorse nitrogen gas inhalation as the backup execution method in 2015. This occurred as a result of the state waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on how they performed lethal injections.

"I believe in justice for victims and their families, and in capital punishment as appropriate for dealing with those who commit these crimes. Using an inert gas will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and requires no complex medical procedures," said Hunter.

Currently, there is no set date for these executions. No execution protocols regarding nitrogen hypoxia exist, meaning that state officials have only recently undertaken developing them. Though, as per Allbaugh, delivery of nitrogen gas will most likely be through a mask. Furthermore, the lawsuit filed by death row inmates stipulates that no execution date will be settled upon until 150 days after the protocol has been developed, which in itself is expected to take about 90 days at the least.

Will history repeat itself?

Response to the announcement has been swift. Dale Baich, an attorney for 20 of Oklahoma’s death row inmates, has criticized the move, stating: "Instead of following the recommendations of the Oklahoma Death (Penalty) Review Commission, the attorney general and Department of Corrections took a different course by adopting this new method of execution.

"Oklahoma is once again asking its citizens to trust its officials as they learn on the job through a new execution procedure and method. How can we trust Oklahoma to get this right when the state has the recent history that reveals a culture of carelessness and mistakes?"

In the last five years, Oklahoma has gained a small level of infamy after the occurrence of two high-profile, botched executions. The first was Clayton Lockett’s execution in 2014. Lockett, who had been convicted of kidnapping, murder, and rape, was injected with a combination of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. Though declared unconscious at first, Lockett began to struggle after three minutes and continued to do so for over 40 minutes before finally succumbing to a heart attack. (Related: Ohio slowly executes man with agonizing experimental lethal injection that almost didn't work.)

The second was Charles Warner’s execution in 2015. Warner, who was charged with the rape and murder of an 11-month-old girl in 1997, was given potassium acetate instead of potassium chloride. His entire execution lasted a lengthy 18 minutes. While Warner was said to have showed no signs of distress, his last words before dying were: "My body is on fire."

Oklahoma has not carried out any executions since Warner’s death.

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