In This State, a Move Forward on a New Execution Method

Alabama says it's 'close' on protocol for using nitrogen gas to put inmates to death
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 17, 2023 12:58 PM CST
Alabama Prisons Chief: 'We're Close' on New Execution Protocol
A fence is seen at the Elmore Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., on June 18, 2015.   (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

The head of Alabama's prison system said Wednesday that a protocol for using nitrogen gas to carry out executions should be finished this year. "We're close. We're close," John Hamm, commissioner of the state's Department of Corrections, said of the new execution method that the state has been working to develop for several years. He said the protocol "should be" finished by the end of the year. Hamm made the comment in response to a question from the AP about the status of the new execution method. Once the protocol is finished, there will be litigation over the untested execution method before the state attempts to use it.

Nitrogen hypoxia is a proposed execution method in which death would be caused by forcing the inmate to breathe only nitrogen, thereby depriving them of the oxygen needed to maintain bodily functions. Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have authorized the use of nitrogen hypoxia, but it has never been used to carry out a death sentence. Alabama lawmakers in 2018 approved legislation that authorized nitrogen hypoxia as an alternate execution method. Supporters said the state needed a new method, as lethal injection drugs had become difficult to obtain.

Lawmakers theorized that death by nitrogen hypoxia could be a simpler and more humane execution method. But critics have likened the untested method to human experimentation. The state has disclosed little information about the new execution method. The Alabama Department of Corrections told a federal judge in 2021 that it had completed a "system" to use nitrogen gas, but it didn't describe it. Although lethal injection remains the primary method for carrying out death sentences, the legislation gave inmates a brief window to select nitrogen as their execution method. A number of inmates selected nitrogen.

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Hamm also said a review of the state's execution procedures should be completed, "probably within the next month." Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey requested a pause in executions to review procedures after lethal injections were halted. Ivey cited concerns for the victims and their families in ordering the review in Alabama. "For the sake of the victims and their families, we've got to get this right," Ivey said. A group of faith leaders last week urged Ivey to authorize an independent review of execution procedures, as Oklahoma and Tennessee did after a series of failed lethal injections in those states.

(More Alabama stories.)

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