From its first use in the execution of Gee Jon in Nevada in 1924 to its link to Nazi gas chambers, lethal gas as method of execution has a problematic history. American lethal-gas executions typically used hydrogen cyanide as the mechanism of death. Inmates were strapped to chairs in gas chambers and the ensuing chemical reaction would cause visible signs of pain and discomfort: skin discoloration, drooling, and writhing.
But nitrogen hypoxia would likely not produce the gruesome deaths that resulted from cyanide gas executions. Copeland says that “you don’t have to worry about someone reacting differently.” The condemned person would feel slightly intoxicated before losing consciousness and ultimately dying.
Other death-penalty experts are more skeptical. “It’s only been partially vetted, superficially researched, and has never been tried,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Using it would be an experiment on human subjects.” State death rows would be strapping someone down without any idea what would happen next, he feared.
“We’d need testimony from the best experts on this,” Dieter says. “Right now, this is sailing through a legislature and not a peer-review process. I’m no doctor, but let’s hear from them. I don’t completely dismiss the idea that this could become approved or that it’s as good as they say because lethal injection is in a bind.”
If the bill becomes law and Oklahoma successfully executes someone using this method, it could spread from to state very quickly, Dieter says. Older methods like firing squads are a little too brutal for the American public, but something new could be accepted. If so, he says, “it could lead to an awkward spurt of executions.”
Copeland says he is not a death penalty absolutist. “I think the state has a unique obligation for justice—it’s the state’s obligation,” he explains. “But I don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent compared to life without parole.” If we must have the death penalty, he argues, it should be humane.
Christine C. Pappas, one of Copeland’s co-researchers, echoes this point. In an email exchange, she said that if the Supreme Court invalidates lethal injection as an execution method, it would not necessarily mean the end of the death penalty. States could find other ways to kill. “If we are to have the death penalty, which is something that Oklahomans really want, I believe it should be as painless as possible,” she argues. Pappas is opposed to capital punishment and says she’s faced criticism from abolitionists who think she’s in league with death-penalty advocates.
“What’s missing is the question of whether or not we should be executing people at all,” said Ryan Kiesel, the executive director of the Oklahoma ACLU and a former three-term member of the state House of Representatives. He argues that the state legislature is missing the big picture. “Instead, we’re having this bizarre academic exercise with professors playing doctors dressed up as executioners. Behind all of those masks, there’s no legitimate expertise to help legislators consider this method.”