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Eight Death Row Prisoners Opt for Untested Nitrogen Gas Over Inhumane Lethal Injection

by Betty Nelander

A decision by Alabama lawmakers means that death row prisoners in the state could face execution by nitrogen hypoxia instead of barbaric lethal injection.

The decision renders moot a lawsuit by eight death row prisoners who also opted for this untested method over the injections. On July 10, 2018, the state attorney general, along with the prisoners and their lawyers, filed a joint motion to dismiss the litigation.

No state has used nitrogen gas inhalation as a means of execution, which would cut off oxygen in the blood stream and asphyxiate the prisoner. And there is no protocol in place for it, something that would likely face legal challenges.

“The plaintiffs in this case, and anyone else who elected the new method, cannot now be executed by lethal injection,” said John Palombi, an attorney with the Federal Defenders Program who is representing prisoners in the lawsuit, as quoted in the New York Post.

The eight prisoners, however, “did not waive their rights to eventually challenge the humaneness of execution by nitrogen and urged the state to make the protocol public when it is developed.”

And, so far, only Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have authorized nitrogen as a means to carry out the death penalty. The states that have the death penalty use lethal injection as the primary means of execution.

There is very little known about death by nitrogen. In accidents, people who inhale it quickly pass out and die due to lack of oxygen. The last gas used during an execution was hydrogen cyanide, in 1999, in Arizona. The prisoner took 18 minutes to die, coughing and hacking until he perished.

In May 2016, The New York Times reported, “an Arizona company sent a sales-pitch letter for nitrogen gas executions to Nebraska corrections officials. Among the standout features of its Euthypoxia Chamber: It ‘produces calm and sedation followed by inebriation and euphoria;’ it ‘requires no medical expertise;’ and it guarantees ‘the demise of any mammalian life in 4 minutes.”

Meanwhile, lethal injections have a notorious history, at times leaving the prisoner in agony well after the individual was supposed to be unconscious. Alabama uses the problematic sedative midazolam.

“While the best way to reduce the risks of botched executions would be to abolish the death penalty,” said federal public defender John Palombi, who represents the prisoners, “if the death penalty does exist, it must be carried out in a constitutional manner with the respect and dignity that is required of such a solemn event.”

He is urging Alabama to make its nitrogen hypoxia protocol public once it is developed, “so that the people of the state of Alabama know what is being done in their name.” 


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