It’s not hard to predict how Oklahoma’s new execution method will play out.
The future of the death penalty in Oklahoma may have been established in 2015 when Republican Rep. Mike Christian easily passed a bill (HB1879) that gave the state more options for executions.
Christian really wanted to help Oklahoma with the problems it was having killing people. Problems like the inability to get the drugs used in the deadly lethal injection “cocktail,” or the matter of people not dying efficiently when substitute drugs were used, or when non-clinicians missed veins, repeatedly. Messy in physical terms, and maybe more so legally. These court-based deterrents and delays are things governments like to avoid, after all.
So he “researched,” looking not only back in history for methods like electrocution (as revived in Tennessee) or firing squad (Utah) but ahead to the very latest unscientific speculations being discussed on the world’s most accessible compendium of wisdom, Youtube. He found his solution in a documentary literally named “How to Kill a Human Being.”
What he discovered was the answer to prayers – if you can call the search for killing tools prayerful. Simple, clean, painless, with just the use of a basic and abundant gas, a barely trained DOC staffer could put someone to sleep in a few minutes – a sleep from which they would never wake. It even has a nice, clean scientific name: nitrogen hypoxia.
Nothing rare, messy or difficult about nitrogen. You can buy canisters of it on Amazon. The primary problem for officials with this method, one might predict, will be those who complain that it’s too quick and painless to exact true justice.
Sixty-nine percent of the air we breathe is nitrogen. The other 21% is oxygen, and it’s this gas which we need to survive. The killing process is simply to replace the oxygen – in a sealed room or through a mask over the face – with nitrogen, inducing unconsciousness, brain death, and stopping the heart. All within about six minutes, during which, as reported by those who face this experience accidentally, there is no pain, perhaps brief euphoria, before you are gone.
Thanks to Christian’s YouTube investigation, once again Oklahoma will lead the way in developing new methods of state killing, as it did in 1977 when OK Medical Examiner Jay Chapman first cooked up the lethal injection protocol using the very same arguments.
And, judging from the outcome of State Question 776 in 2016, most Oklahomans (66%) are perfectly okay with Christian’s solution – or any other, as long as the death penalty continues to be an Oklahoma standard. Any detours along that predictable route – The Supreme Court case Glossip v. Gross, the Death Penalty Review Commission’s Report with 46 recommendations for the state to meet before executions resume – those were just brief and unimportant side tours in the steady course this state has maintained since 1976 when the death penalty was again allowed by SCOTUS if little matters of constitutionality like arbitrariness were addressed by the states.
(Forty-two years later, these concerns still exist, but never mind that.)
The way ahead was cleared of any detritus from those interruptions on March 14, when Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter held a press conference to make the inevitable official: Executions would resume, dumping the now-troublesome lethal injection protocol, using rather the new method Christian found on the Internet, just as untested as the old one when first performed, and Oklahoma could get back to what it does with such fervor and dedication: killing its undesirables.
Referring to nitrogen with the clinical term “inert gas,” Hunter said in a press release that the new procedure
[…] is the best way for the state to move forward with executions and ensure justice is met for victims of heinous crimes.
“Executions are the most profound application of state power,” Attorney General Hunter said. “I believe in justice for victims and their families, and in capital punishment as appropriate for dealing with those whose commit these crimes. Using an inert gas will be effective, simple to administer, easy to obtain and requires no complex medical procedures.
DOC Director Joe Allbaugh said he was “working to develop a protocol and procedure to carry out future executions.” While he did not go into details, what this means is fitting out a room to serve as a gas chamber for the inmates on Oklahoma’s death row.
Thankfully, at least to date, none of the officials have taken their arguments to their logical conclusion and suggested that all the inmates on Oklahoma’s death row be herded in at once, locked in and put to sleep en masse. But let’s be honest: much more effective, simple and easy! And cheaper, that’s important these days of budget cuts.
No, the death penalty in Oklahoma is back on track. We will soon have a steady, rapid, pace of individual executions – perhaps even more horrific as state-sanctioned murder again becomes a normalized routine and the press goes back to dozing through them. The vigilers who gather at the Governor’s mansion to mark and protest each one should clear their schedule this fall.
Meanwhile, death row exonerations also continue, just as predictably, with our unjust, racist and capricious system. Since 1973, 161 convicted of murder, pending execution, fully cleared of the crime. Of those, 10 were in Oklahoma.
This piece was published in the April 2018 issue of The Oklahoma Observer.