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Reconsidering the Gas Chamber

In 1992, the US Supreme Court rejected an attack on California's gas chamber on the procedural ground that the prisoner had withheld the challenge until the last minute even though the effects of cyanide gas had been well known the whole time.  Justices Stevens and Blackmun dissented, and among the reasons they gave was that all the experts agreed that another method was so much better -- lethal injection.  See Gomez v. US District Court, 503 U.S. 653, 656 & n. 7 (1992) (Stevens, J., dissenting).  California's first post-Furman execution went forward.

The message, loud and clear, was that the method-of-execution challenges could be stopped by adopting the method the prisoners' lawyers proposed.  And so it did, for over a decade.  Now we are back where we were.

I was against the change to lethal injection at the time.  There was something vaguely wrong about medicalizing a procedure that is supposed to be punishment.  The wrongness is no longer vague.

The problem with the gas chamber was not the method but the choice of gas.
Back then, my proposal was to simply switch to carbon monoxide.  CO is well known as a gas that puts people to sleep and then causes a painless death.

In the years since, I have altered my position slightly to favor another method.  The oxygen in a chamber can be displaced with nontoxic gas such as helium or nitrogen.  The result is hypoxia, a lack of oxygen, which causes a drift into unconsciousness followed by a painless death.

I do not need reports or studies to know that hypoxia is painless.  I know it from personal experience in the altitude chamber during Air Force flight training.  With most of the air pumped out, the instructors had us take off our oxygen masks to get the experience.  They kept theirs on.  Most of us put ours back on when told to do so, but a few had to be helped.  (That, BTW, is why the flight attendant tells you before every flight to put your own mask on first and then help your child.)

The choking sensation that causes acute distress from a shutoff of the airway -- or from cyanide -- is caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide, CO2.  That is what triggers the body's primeval desperation mechanisms.  Lack of oxygen without buildup of carbon dioxide does not occur in nature, and the body has no distress reaction to it.  Displacement of oxygen with helium is the primary method recommended in the well-known manual for self-euthanasia, Final Exit.

What we really need to do is retrofit the gas chamber to flush it with helium or nitrogen.  These are industrial gases, readily available without involving the pharmaceutical industry.  You don't need medical training to turn a valve or read a meter.  There is no environmental impact from releasing either of these gases to the atmosphere.  Helium is totally inert, and air is 4/5 nitrogen to start with.

So why don't we?  Some people raise an objection of an association of gas with the Holocaust.  I never found that a convincing argument.  We used the gas chamber when World War II was still fresh in people's minds, and gas as such was not a problem then.  It should be less of a problem as that era fades into history.

There is the problem of inertia and fear of legal challenges, the same problem that has held up the change to single-drug lethal injection.  Every state wants someone else to go first and have a method upheld by courts before they adopt it.

In states with hopeless legislatures, such as California, there is a question whether the method could be adopted without new legislation.  I think it could here.  The alternate method in the statute is "lethal gas," not "toxic gas."  A nontoxic gas is lethal when used as described here.

Short term, we should probably fix the problems with lethal injection and carry out the executions that have finished their regular appeals.  Long term, though, we should take a new look at the old gas chamber.

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