My home state of Alabama often makes the news for the wrong reasons. We have the lowest COVID vaccination rate in the country. The state’s newly christened largest city, Huntsville, generates story after story of police brutality, with the mayor constantly attempting to defend the indefensible. We sentence people to death at a rate higher than any other state, despite having one exoneration for every seven executions. And now, here in the buckle of the Bible belt, we are putting the finishing touches on a new method of execution – nitrogen hypoxia.
Over the summer the state completed construction on a new gas chamber that will be used to suffocate people to death with nitrogen gas. The new method will allegedly be more humane and sidestep the many problems that have arisen with execution by lethal injection. However, the state refuses to release any information related to the execution protocols for killing people in the new gas chamber, citing security concerns. So much for the belt of truth buckled around our waist. The state aims to operate in secrecy as it kills, just as it did with lethal injection protocols in the past. This is the same Department of Corrections that is currently under a lawsuit from the federal Department of Justice for unconstitutionally bad prison conditions. It’s the same state that just tried and failed to launch a multi-billion dollar enterprise to build new privately owned prisons. The good stewards among us might suggest that a shiny new gas chamber was not the best way to use our limited resources.
The search for more palatable methods of execution is nothing new and is not limited to Alabama. Lethal injection, the near-ubiquitous way to kill in the United States for two decades, arose largely after the troubling sight of botched executions in the electric chair. Many remember the gruesome botched execution scene in Stephen King’s The Green Mile; this scene was based on a real event that took place in Florida in 1990. What’s worse is the man killed, Jesse Tafero, was innocent. Lethal injection gave the promise of a humane way to kill, but it quickly became clear that the sterile environment and clinical look of the gurney were for our benefit, not the benefit of the condemned. Numerous botched executions have plagued lethal injections, perhaps the most infamous being that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in 2014. Oklahoma, like Alabama, has approved nitrogen hypoxia as a new method of execution. What has become obvious is that the state wants execution to appear humane for the masses, but has no concern over whether the condemned suffer in violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. So much for the least of these.
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Alabama and Oklahoma are not the only states trying to circumvent the many issues with carrying out lethal injections, like the difficulty in obtaining approved drugs and the constitutional challenges to execution protocols. Tennessee and others have reinstated the electric chair as a method the condemned may choose. Even overlooking the macabre practice of asking a person to choose how they die, choosing between two methods known to cause incredible suffering is akin to Sophie’s choice. Arizona has now approved a gas chamber using the gas commonly known as Zyklon B. If that name seems familiar, it may be because it was what the Nazis used in extermination camps. Arizona is shockingly unbothered by that parallel. South Carolina has approved the firing squad as an option for execution, joining a few others with that method on the books. One could be forgiven for thinking the last execution by firing squad might have been in 1910, but in fact, it was in 2010 in Utah. Ronnie Lee Gardner was killed in a hail of gunfire, and his brother Randy still speaks around the country on the horror of seeing Ronnie die that way. As states grapple with how to resume killing, the only debate seems to be over the method.
The entire modern death penalty era has been marked by wrangling over the best way to kill. Since Gregg v. Georgia revived the American death penalty in 1976, states have tinkered with the machinery of death in vain attempts to make the process of killing fair and humane. The debates have been over appeals, public defenders, judicial override, racial discrimination, and yes, the actual method used to kill. All of these machinations by states like Alabama have not avoided hundreds of exonerations and countless botched executions. Paradoxically, the states most known for evangelical Christianity have precious few who ask whether we should kill people at all. After signing an anti-abortion bill in 2019, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey said, without a hint of irony, “This legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” The same governor who worships an executed savior, who boldly proclaimed that every life is precious, approved of building the new nitrogen hypoxia chamber.
The reality is that there is no such thing as humanely killing a human being made in the image of God. The whole debate over process and method is a farce meant to make the rest of us feel as though our hands are clean. Even if nitrogen hypoxia is “two breaths to death,” as I was taught in industrial safety training, that does not assuage the absolute horror felt by the condemned and their families as time marches mercilessly toward an execution date. I know that firsthand, as I describe in my book Child of Grace: A Death Row Story; my father being suffocated by nitrogen gas rather than killed with a lethal mix of drugs would not have changed anything about that day, the days leading up to it, or the days that followed. When Jesus said he who was without sin should cast the first stone, it was not a lament that only stones were available. A convenient sword or flask of poison would not have caused our Lord to render a different answer. Debating a method of killing misses the point entirely; the debate should be whether, to paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, we have the right to kill at all. I believe our executed savior would say all life is precious, and mean it.