Whether you believe the death penalty is a moral abomination (it is!), an effective criminal deterrent (it's not!), surely we can all agree that if a state's plan to resurrect its moribund execution program relies on the same method the Nazis used to murder millions in their concentration camp gas chambers, perhaps it's time to rethink the whole enterprise.
Incredibly, that seems to be exactly what Arizona is doing, with documents obtained by The Guardian showing the state has not only "refurbished" its long dormant gas chamber, but has also purchased thousands of dollars worth of chemicals — including "a solid brick of potassium cyanide" — to create hydrogen cyanide gas. The compound, initially created more than a century ago as a pesticide, is more commonly known by its trade name: Zyklon B. It is the main chemical used by the Nazis in gas chambers at Auschwitz and other Third Reich extermination camps.
While Arizona's gas chamber hasn't been used in more than two decades, authorities deemed it "operationally ready" after conducting a number of tests this past December, according to the public records obtained by The Guardian. The state hasn't conducted any executions since 2014, when convicted murderer Joseph Wood was killed after hours of excruciating pain during a botched lethal injection. The state had previously turned away from executions decades earlier, only to reinstate them in 1992, killing convicted murderer Donald Harding in the same gas chamber being refurbished now. In an essay describing his death, then-Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods wrote:
There was a whirring noise as the crystals of sodium cyanide came down the tube into the pail of sulfuric acid below the chair.
Harding began to flip me the bird with his shackled hand and then the white hydrogen cyanide gas became visible, and he waved it up toward his face and breathed deeply several times. The veins on his neck protruded and he jerked violently for over a minute. He passed out, but his body continued to writhe and turned colors from white to purple and back to white. Finally, his body slumped in the chair and the warden called out the time.
Walter LaGrand, the last person to be killed by gas in Arizona, reportedly took 18 minutes to die in 1999, during which his "agonizing choking and gagging continued over several minutes," according to one witness.
Death row inmates in Arizona, of whom there are just over 100, will now have a choice of being killed in the gas chamber or through lethal injection, which has been slowed of late because of a shortage of the requisite chemicals. In South Carolina, meanwhile, Gov. Henry McMaster (R) recently signed into law a bill that would give condemned inmates a similar choice in the manner of their execution: electric chair or firing squad.