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Arizona restores gas chamber in effort to resume executions

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PHOENIX, ARIZONA –
Warning: the details in this story may be disturbing to some

While aiming to resume executions after a seven-year hiatus, Arizona has renovated its gas chamber, where the country’s last lethal gas execution took place more than two decades ago before the United States rejected the brutal nature of The deaths.

The state has purchased materials to make hydrogen cyanide gas, which was used in some earlier executions in the United States and which the Nazis used to kill 865,000 Jews in the Auschwitz concentration camp alone.

The secret remodel late last year at the Florence prison, southeast of Phoenix, is drawing criticism as a cruel approach to punishment that is out of touch with modern sensibilities.

“Whether or not the death penalty is supported as a general issue, there is general agreement in American society that a gas designed as a pesticide and used to eliminate Jews has no place in the administration of criminal justice.” said the Jewish American. The committee wrote in a statement this week.

Prison officials declined to say why they are restarting the gas chamber. However, the move comes as states find it increasingly difficult to secure lethal injection drugs as manufacturers refuse to supply them.

Nationwide, executions have approached record lows amid the shortage, although some states are finding ways to avoid it. Last month, South Carolina passed a law that required those sentenced to death to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad.

Arizona has also had trouble finding drug providers, but this spring revealed that it had obtained a shipment of pentobarbital.

Corrections officials outlined legal and constitutional requirements that allow inmates sentenced to death to opt for the gas chamber if they were convicted of crimes that occurred before Arizona adopted lethal injection in 1992.

The state is one of four with decades-old gas chamber laws still on the books.

It is unclear whether any of the Arizona death row inmates have expressed a preference for the method.

The state department of corrections said in a statement that it is “prepared to fulfill its constitutional obligations, execute court orders and bring justice to the families of the victims.”

Attorneys who practice death penalty law in Arizona say its execution protocol contained no provisions for carrying out gas chamber executions from 2007 until the policies were amended this year.

Dale Baich, head of the unit in the Federal Office of the Public Defender that represents Arizona prisoners in death penalty appeals, said he believes the state wants the gas chamber to work in case any of the 17 eligible death row inmates select her.

“My guess is that because there are 17 people, the department wants to be ready,” Baich said.

The state’s effort to get its gas chamber working again was revealed in records obtained by The Guardian newspaper. State officials later turned over the documents to other news organizations, including The Associated Press.

Records show authorities purchased a block of potassium cyanide, sodium hydroxide granules and sulfuric acid in December to produce cyanide gas.

The rubber seals on the hatch door and chamber windows have been replaced. An exhaust fan in the chemical mixing room was repaired. Rust off surfaces. The camera levers needed to be lubricated.

A candle was lit near the door and windows to test the chamber’s tightness, and a smoke grenade was lit inside to ensure that the fan and ventilation were working, records show.

Executions were called off in Arizona after the 2014 death of Joseph Wood, who gasped for air and snorted as he was injected with 15 doses of a two-drug combination over two hours. Wood was executed for the 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged girlfriend, Debra Dietz, and her father, Eugene Dietz, in Tucson.

Two months ago, prosecutors said they would seek to execute two prisoners, Frank Atwood and Clarence Dixon.

Dixon was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of Deana Bowdoin, 21, in Maricopa County. Atwood received the death penalty for the 1984 murder of 8-year-old Vicki Lynn Hoskinson, whose body was found in the desert outside Tucson.

The gruesome nature of gas chamber deaths and the advent of lethal injection executions turned the United States against lethal gas, said Deborah Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School who has studied executions for more than 25 years.

Historical accounts of gas chamber executions show prisoners gasping for breath, beating their immobilized bodies and appearing to be in excruciating pain. A convicted man in Mississippi repeatedly struck his head against a steel pole during his execution in 1983.

The last prisoner to be executed in an American gas chamber was Walter LaGrand, the second of two German brothers sentenced to death for killing a bank manager in 1982 in southern Arizona. It took LaGrand 18 minutes to die in 1999.

Both brothers chose the gas chamber in the hope that the courts would find the method unconstitutional. While Karl LaGrand accepted the state’s last-minute lethal injection offer, Walter LaGrand rejected it, saying he would prefer a more painful execution to protest the death penalty.

The case drew widespread criticism in Germany, which does not have a death penalty, and sparked repeated diplomatic protests.

The redevelopment of the Arizona gas chamber is again being condemned internationally, including coverage in Israel and Germany that draws parallels to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

When asked to comment on the criticism, CJ Karamargin, spokesman for the Republican governor. Doug Ducey said: “Governor Ducey is following the law as set out in the Arizona constitution. Victims have long been waiting for justice in many of these cases.”

In “The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber,” writer Scott Christianson said that 594 people were killed in lethal gas executions in the United States between 1924 and 1999.

Although some believe the Nazis invented the gas chamber, the first one made for executions was built in Nevada and was first used in 1924, Christianson wrote.

The chamber was a by-product of chemical warfare research conducted by the United States Army and the chemical industry during World War I. The Third Reich then expanded its use industrially to slaughter millions, he wrote.

“Even after Auschwitz, it still took more than 50 years for gas chamber executions to cease in America,” Christianson wrote in his 2010 book.

Lethal gas enforcement laws remain in effect in Arizona, California, Missouri, and Wyoming.

In recent years, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama have passed laws allowing nitrogen gas executions, at least in some circumstances, although experts say it has never been done and no state has established a protocol allowing it.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which has criticized how executions are carried out in the United States, said Arizona officials should have recognized the implications of gas chambers given the use of Zyklon B by the Nazis, a pesticide that had hydrogen cyanide gas as a lethal component.

“You have to wonder what they were thinking to seriously believe that executing a prisoner with cyanide gas is morally acceptable in 2021,” Dunham said.

——

Associated Press reporter Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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