Arizona Death Row Inmate Won't Die in Gas Chamber

Frank Atwood is now scheduled to be executed by lethal injection
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 4, 2022 1:08 PM CDT
Updated May 20, 2022 9:03 AM CDT
Death Row Inmate's Option: Die by Cyanide Used by Nazis
This undated file photo shows Frank Atwood, who was sentenced to death in the 1984 killing of 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson in Pima County, Ariz.   (Arizona Department of Corrections via AP, File)

(Newser) Updated: Arizona death-row inmate Frank Atwood had until 12:01am Friday to select whether he wanted to die via lethal injection or in the state's refurbished gas chamber. He declined to make a choice, so the state's default method—lethal injection—will be used on June 8. It puts to rest some controversy over the possibility that Atwood would be killed using hydrogen cyanide gas, which was used by the Nazis to kill Jews. Deborah Denno, a Fordham Law School professor and longtime execution researcher, tells the AP a significant number of death-row inmates who are offered a choice don't make one: "No one knows the reasons (why), but one factor is they are depressed and have given up. This is the least of their worries. They are going to die." Our original story from May 11 follows:

Arizona last carried out an execution in 2014, but it's set to put two men to death within the next five weeks. Clarence Dixon is scheduled to be executed May 11 by lethal injection; how Frank Atwood will die remains a question mark. The Guardian reports that, like Dixon, Atwood has his choice of lethal injection or cyanide gas, and it's that latter option—used by the Nazis to murder Jews during the Holocaust—that has everyone from Atwood's lawyers to the ACLU shuddering. "Cyanide is as bad as everybody thinks it is—there's a reason the Nazis used it: It's a horrific way to die," says Joseph Perkovich of Atwood’s legal team, noting they'll be trying to convince Atwood to go in the other direction ahead of his May 19 decision deadline.

The ACLU has gone so far as to sue, doing so on behalf of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix in an attempt to block the state's department of corrections from using the lethal gas. "Under no circumstances should the same method of execution used to murder over 1 million people, including Jews, during the Holocaust be used in the execution of people on death row," said an ACLU in a statement quoted by FOX 10 Phoenix.

But Perkovich says Atwood, whose mother was a Jew who fled Austria in 1939, is in a tough spot: Perkovich claims being strapped to the gurney to carry out the lethal injection would cause "agonizing" pain for his client due to the severe spine degeneration he suffers from. As such, Atwood's lawyers have taken the step of requesting that death by firing squad be made an option; they describe it as "a simple and inexpensive method used since the invention of firearms," per AZ Central. Arizona is the only state with an operational gas chamber, though it hasn't been used since the 1990s, during which one inmate experienced "agonizing choking and gagging" during the 18 minutes it took him to die, per the Guardian. Atwood, 65, was sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of 8-year-old Vicki Lynne Hoskinson. (Read more cyanide gas stories.)

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