States Consider Lethal Injection Alternatives

OKLAHOMA CITY — As the result of the botched lethal injection execution of Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett in April 2014, as well as a nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs, some of the 32 states that practice capital punishment now are examining alternative methods.

Lockett apparently experienced a heart attack after receiving the injection, which Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton attributed to “vein failure.” The issue was compounded by the fact that officials did not have another dose in the facility.

Though the Supreme Court approved the three-drug method used on Lockett in 2008, the court halted another planned execution by lethal injection following Lockett’s death. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has also agreed to a six-month stay of execution for another inmate scheduled to receive the same three-drug method.

In light of the potential problems caused by this method, the ingredients of which remain top secret, nitrogen asphyxiation has been proposed as a safer, more humane alternative. The practice involves containing an inmate in an airtight room into which nitrogen gas is pumped. Death is ultimately caused by asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen.

Already a frequent cause of accidental death, the method is believed to be painless and perhaps even euphoric, which proponents say falls within the realm of humane punishment. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, nitrogen is not considered a poison. However, the compound does becomes potentially fatal when not mixed with a sufficient amount of oxygen. Additionally, the compound is widely available, which could help states avoid an untimely shortage similar to that experienced by Oklahoma.

Though nitrogen asphyxiation has yet to be tested as a method of execution, Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc has pointed to the practice as a less contentious alternative to lethal injection. LeBlanc referred to the method as “a painless way to go,” but added that more time needs to be spent examining its implications.

Rep. Joe Lopinto, a Republican from Metairie, La., and Rep. Rick Brattin, a Missouri Republican, have each proposed resolutions that would allow their respective states to consider alternatives should lethal injection drugs not be available. Similar bills have also been proposed in Virginia, Tennessee and Wyoming. Additionally, reported in February 2014 that authorities in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio are mulling the issue of lethal injection.