September 1, 2019 | View PDF
In spite of what some people claim about the cruelty of capital punishment, there are some people who are just too dangerous to be allowed to exist. See my May, 2017 article for my argument on this topic.
The question here is what is the best and most humane method to carry it out? Although there is a basic need to execute certain criminals, there is not a need to do it in a cruel manner. The object is to peacefully eliminate the culprits, not to demonstrate vindictive ways to carry out their demise. Cruelty is abhorrent in a civilized society.
Over the past centuries, executions have slowly evolved from the horribly cruel to the most humane our technology can reasonably provide. In the 20th century, electrocution became the method of choice in most states, replacing traditional hanging that was used in the 19th. Most scientists agreed that, if done properly, it was essentially painless. In later years, some have disagreed and have replaced it with lethal injection.
But lethal injection has sometimes been problematic. In a few rare cases, the subjects suffered painful convulsions or later revived after being pronounced dead. Here in Alabama, a supplier refused to provide a crucial chemical. Pharmaceutical companies in other states have also refused to supply drugs for that purpose.
Lethal injection is not an easy procedure. It requires special restricted and dangerous chemicals and doctors’ expertise to ensure that the process functions as planned. It is considerably more complicated than Dr. Kevorkian’s three drug setup that has worked every time, but has been rejected by every state that has adopted lethal injection.
Cyanide gas has been popular in California for years, but it is not a peaceful way to die. Suffering can last ten minutes or longer. Carbon monoxide would be a better and more humane poison, but for whatever reason, the state has not adopted it.
Another problem with poison gas is that it is dangerous. A special airtight chamber is needed to administer it. Handling and later neutralizing and disposing of it require special safety precautions.
Fortunately, there is a much more humane procedure than any of the above methods. In addition, it is far less costly and is also 100% safe. In practice, it is about as idiot-proof as any method imaginable. It is called nitrogen asphyxiation (or hypoxia by nitrogen). It might seem like just tying a plastic bag over one’s head and letting him suffocate. But that is not the way it’s done.
Carbon dioxide quickly builds up and causes the subject to suffer a great deal of stress. For a humane execution, suffering is not allowed. The subject must go to sleep peacefully, and in no uncertain terms.
Death is not caused by the nitrogen; it is physiologically inert. Death is caused by the absence of oxygen. The purpose of adding nitrogen is to vent out the CO2 and prevent the panic trauma that it causes.
The procedure is simple. Ordinary people with no special training can perform it, and no special equipment or facilities are required. The subject is strapped into a chair, and an airtight hood is placed over his head and sealed around his neck. A hose is attached near the top to introduce the nitrogen, and a small opening on the front near the bottom allows the exhaled carbon dioxide to escape.
A cylindrical tank like those used in welding shops would provide the nitrogen. After it de-pressurizes, it is very cold and prone to fogging. It would pass through several feet of metal pipe to warm it to room temperature before being administered.
The subject breathes normally. With the removal of the CO2, he feels like he is breathing normal air and is not subjected to the hypercapnic alarm response caused by inhaling excess CO2. There is no panic sensation. In as little as a minute or two, he loses consciousness. In as little as a few minutes, he stops breathing. At this point, the nitrogen can be turned off. To ensure a certain death, the hood would remain in place another 30 minutes or more. A doctor or nurse would be present to determine and pronounce death.
Since the body is not contaminated with any poisons or chemicals, it is perfectly safe to use for organ donations. Lethally injected bodies cannot be used for this purpose.
The procedure is absolutely safe for all personnel and bystanders. No dangerous chemicals or any special containment room is needed. The spent nitrogen and CO2 are simply vented into the air. They are perfectly harmless. Don’t forget that the air we breathe every day is 79% nitrogen. Oklahoma is the first state to adopt nitrogen asphyxiation. In April 2015, Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill to allow it, and on March 14, 2018, Attorney General Mike Hunter and Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh approved it as the primary method of execution.
In March 2018, Alabama became the third state, after Oklahoma and Mississippi, to accept nitrogen asphyxiation for execution.
So far, no nitrogen executions have taken place. But once this method has been given final approval, the lengthy, expensive, and cruel waiting periods of many years for death row inmates can be eliminated with swift, safe, and humane justice for both the condemned and the public.
1. Wikipedia, Inert Gas Asphyxiation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inert_gas_asphyxiation
2. Slate, Death by Nitrogen,
3. Quora, Why is nitrogen asphyxiation not used in capital punishment?