OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma would become the first state to execute condemned inmates using nitrogen gas under a proposal that will be presented next week to a legislative committee.
Rep. Mike Christian, a former highway patrolman and a staunch supporter of the death penalty, said he will unveil details of the plan Tuesday during an interim study of the House Judiciary Committee. Christian, R-Oklahoma City, said he intends to draft a bill for next year's Legislature, which begins in February.
"We've had so many problems with lethal injection," Christian said. "I think this is just a more humane method, and I think it will be well received."
Christian requested the study after Oklahoma's lethal injection in April of Clayton Lockett, who writhed on the gurney, clenched his teeth and moaned before being pronounced dead about 43 minutes after his execution began. An investigation by the state Department of Public Safety released earlier this month blamed the problems on the poor placement of an intravenous line, and state prison officials are developing new lethal injection protocols.
Christian initially proposed the use of a firing squad but said nitrogen asphyxiation would be simpler and could be easily done by putting a hood or a mask over an inmate's face. He said his bill would give inmates already on Oklahoma's death row the option of lethal injection or gas asphyxiation.
Using nitrogen or another inert gas to gradually deplete an inmate's supply of oxygen would be a practical and efficient method of execution that could easily be administered by a layman, said Michael Copeland, a criminal justice professor at East Central University who, along with two colleagues, helped research the method for Christian. Unlike someone holding their breath, which causes a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood, Copeland said asphyxiation from breathing nitrogen would be painless.
"It's not like suffocating. People won't be gasping and fighting for air," Copeland said. "They'll be breathing normally, and then they'll be dead."
Rep. Aaron Stiles, an attorney and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he sees merit in Christian's proposal, especially given the problems states have had in recent years obtaining lethal drugs for executions amid opposition from European manufacturers.
"We wouldn't have to worry about the drugs' availability. It's something the state could produce, and it may be more efficient not only for the state but for the condemned," said Stiles, R-Norman. "If we can solve multiple problems with one method of execution, it's something we should take a look at."
Opponents of the death penalty argued the state could avoid all of the problems associated with executions by abolishing the practice altogether.
"It's tinkering with the machinery of death, and to me it doesn't make any difference how they do it," said James Rowan, a defense attorney who has tried more than 40 death penalty cases and is a board member for the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "It's not going to make it any more palatable to me, even if they did it in the most humane way possible."
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