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Alabama intends to use an untested implementation approach: What is nitrogen hypoxia?

This week, Alabama told a federal judge it may soon be ready to use a new, unproven method of execution called hypoxia to carry out the death penalty.

The revelation came Monday at a court hearing on inmate Alan Miller’s request to block his scheduled execution on September 22 by lethal injection. Miller asserts that prison staff lost paperwork he returned in 2018 asking for nitrous oxide reduction, a method of execution that the state has authorized but has never used.

James Houts, the state’s deputy attorney general, said the method could be available as soon as next week. However, the final decision on when to use the new method will be up to the state’s corrections commissioner.

Here is what is known about nitrogen hypoxia:

Was it ever used in an execution?

No state has yet used nitrogen hypoxia to carry out the death penalty.

In 2018, Alabama became the third state – along with Oklahoma and Mississippi – to allow the use of unproven nitrogen gas to execute prisoners. Some proponents have theorized that nitrogen hypoxia would be a simpler and more humane method of implementation.

How would it perform in a contest?

This undated photo shows inmate Alan Eugene Miller, who was convicted of murder in a workplace shooting that killed three men in 1999. Miller said he was previously in love. required the use of nitrogen-oxygen reduction methods during execution. (Alabama Bureau of Corrections / Associated Press)

Nitrogen makes up 78 of each center of air that humans inhale and is harmless when inhaled with oxygen. The theory behind the method is that changing the composition of the air to 100% nitrogen takes away the amount of oxygen needed by humans to maintain bodily functions.

Trip Pittman, a former Republican congressman from Alabama who sponsored the 2018 bill, theorized that it would be similar to how passengers on a plane pass out when the plane depressurizes.

The state has released very little information about the proposed method. Most of the information available comes from court proceedings. Last year, the Alabama Department of Corrections told a federal judge it had completed a “system” to use nitrogen gas but did not describe it.

In a September 11 court hearing, a state attorney said it asked Miller if he would agree to wear a mask, a sign the state may be planning to put a mask on an inmate’s nose and mouth. core.

Why is the new method considered?

After the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, most executions were carried out by electrocution, with others by gas chambers, hanging or shooting. Injecting a lethal substance was first performed in 1982 and became the dominant method, believed by officials to be a more humane and effective method. According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 1,370 people have been executed by lethal injection, accounting for 88% of all executions since 1976.

The states are beginning to propose nitrous oxide reduction as an alternative treatment because of the difficulty of obtaining lethal injections, as pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders have not sold the product in recent years. of them to the states for use in capital punishment.

Other states have even reconsidered the possibility of using firing squad or electrocution, although legal challenges have prevented those methods from being used again.

What are the concerns?

Critics have likened the untested method to human testing.

“It’s completely untested,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. No state has publicly released a protocol describing how it works.

While advocates theorized it would be quick and painless, Dunham noted that states have said the same thing about the electric chair.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Mortality Guidelines state that inert gas hypoxia is acceptable, under certain conditions, for the mortality of chickens, turkeys, and pigs. but not recommended for other mammals such as rats.

What happens next?

Alabama is working to perfect a process that uses hypoxic nitrogen. Steps must be added to the existing state protocol that describes procedures performed by electric chair or lethal injection.

He said Alabama’s prison commissioner has the final say on when to authorize its use. Litigation is expected if the state decides to continue with this approach.

What is the status of the death penalty in the US?

Currently, 27 states allow the death penalty, although the governors of three of them have enacted a ban on the practice as long as their terms are extended.

Of the remaining 24, only a small number have carried out executions in recent years. According to the DPC, most states have seen the consequences of reckless or flawed prosecutions, with 185 inmates “freed to death sentences with evidence proving their innocence.” .

After the death penalty was reinstated in the US in 1976, the most executions carried out in a single year occurred in 1999, with a total of 98 prisoners. The total has been less than 40 in each year since 2013, dropping to a record low of 11 in 2021. To date, there have been 10 executions overall, carried out in Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

During Donald Trump’s administration, 13 executions have been carried out on federally sentenced prisoners, the first at the federal level since 2003. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s President Joe Biden’s administration ordered a halt to federal executions last year until a full review of the practice could be completed.

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